MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When the Twin Towers fell 10 years ago on Sept. 11, Americans reacted in ways they’ll never forget.
For some, the sight of the twisted metal, debris and flames brought on heartache and confusion. But for others, it sparked a call to action.
Billy Boland grew up in Mendota Heights. He’s currently stationed at the Kabul International Airport NATO base in Afghanistan.
In Fall 2001, Billy set off to Creighton University, unsure of what his future held.
“I didn’t see a specific path for him when he left,” said Laura Boland, Billy’s mother. “It was good; he was on his own path, making his own decisions.”
But Billy’s freshman year would be marked by a national tragedy.
Walking into his freshman dorm on Sept. 11, Billy said he noticed a group of people gathered around a TV. But it was up in his room when first he saw the report that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers.
“I was shocked by it and at that time we thought it was an accident,” Billy recalled. “That night my friends and I gathered outside and held a candlelight vigil to pray for those in the attacks and to hope more people would be found alive.”
That was also when Billy decided joining the military was something he wanted to do — just like his father and grandfathers.
After graduating from college, Billy was commissioned into the Air Force.
Today, Billy is a captain and he’s 5 1/2 months into his second tour.
“When I first found out, I was coming here. You get that whole rush of emotions of what do I need to do, how do I prepare for this, what do I have to get ready? Then you start thinking it’s a whole year of events you’ll be missing,” said Billy. “It’s a lot of things. You miss holidays and the Fourth of July — I love the Fourth of July.”
While stationed in Afghanistan, Billy has missed some other important milestones, including the upcoming birth of his first nephew and his sister’s wedding — which Billy calls a big deal.
“We sent a message home that was played at her wedding, so that made me feel a little better about missing it,” Billy said.
Despite the distance, the Boland’s found a way to include Billy — they created a life-size cardboard cutout of him.
“So we have him in pictures at the wedding and at the rehearsal dinner,” smiled his mother, Laura. “There’s also a ‘Sitting Billy.’ It’s table height to put on a chair so it looks like he’s sitting with us.”
In Afghanistan, Billy has witnessed some unimaginable realities.
This past April an Afghan pilot ambushed the NATO base, killing nine Americans and wounding five Afghan soldiers. It’s the worst incident yet involving an Afghan soldier turning on coalition partners.
“I was walking outside and I heard the pops — I thought it was off base,” Billy recalled. “Everyone I worked with was quickly accounted for. But when you knew that several of your friends are still out there and still missing and there’s at least five people that are dead, it’s a sinking feeling. It took a toll on us emotionally.”
Those airmen, known as the NATCA 9, returned home with full honors.
“We talk a lot about what happens on our side and how we worry about them and worry for their safety,” said Laura. “But we know they’re worried about people here at home too.”
“People entering the military now days based on a personal choice. This is very different from years ago when most, all men were required to serve. In Billy’s case, he had options,” said his mother.
Their death is one Billy wouldn’t have felt had it not been what happened on Sept. 11 but the experience has made Billy who he is today.
“I’ve already been in the Air Force for over six years,” said Billy. “I do feel like I’ve made a contribution to the military and the United States.”
“I have no idea where I’ll be in 10 years. I guess, 10 years ago I had no idea I’d be here, doing what I do in Afghanistan,” he said.