Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, became like no other day at Minot Air Force Base for then 5th Bomb Wing commander Richard “Dick” Newton III and his wife, Jody.
The Newtons, now of Jupiter Beach, Florida, talked about their personal experiences during that time frame in an Aug. 30 interview with The Minot Daily News. Lt. Gen. Newton now is retired from the U.S. Air Force and in the private financial sector. Prior to his retirement he was the Assistant Vice Chief, U.S. Air Force, in Washington, D.C.
Reflecting on the day 9/11, Newton said, “We were just at the point of completing a major exercise that U.S. Strategic Command called Global Guardian.” He said a number of B-52s assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing and other B-52s were taking part in the exercise.
“It was an authentic exercise where we had loaded up our B-52s with weapons. It was going very well and that morning about five minutes or so before 8 o’clock I was in the Command Post,” Newton said. He noted it was a “crisp, clear, absolutely gorgeous Minot day.”
He said he was leaving the Command Post and noticed on a TV that one of the Trade Towers had been struck.
“I believe it was the South Tower,” Newton recalled. He said he remembered going right by those towers when he was in an airshow in a B-2 bomber a couple of years earlier. In his aviator’s mind, he said, he thought it would not be in the realm of possibility that the towers could be accidentally struck by an aircraft.
“That was the first thing that went through my mind,” he said when he saw one of the Trade Towers had been hit that day.
Newton returned to the flightline to watch the completion of the exercise. Because it was a major exercise, his place as the commander at Minot AFB and the 5th Bomb Wing commander was to be on the flightline.
“About 10 minutes later after I got in place at the flight line, I got a call from the Command Post. It was a cryptic call but it was a real world call to return to the Command Post. I never heard that before,” he said.
He turned the exercise over to the Operations Group commander who was on the flight line and hurried back to Command Post, where he joined up with the vice bomb wing commander, Col. Chris Patterson.
“We had already received messages that the United States was under attack,” Newton said. “I believe the second tower had been attacked by the second airliner and the towers had not fallen yet but we went immediately from an exercise escenario to a real world crisis in a matter of minutes,” Newton said.
While this was happening, Jody Newton was at their home on base and their two daughters were at school – Elizabeth was at Minot High School-Central Campus in downtown Minot and Addy was at school on base.
“My husband called to say he wouldn’t see me for a while,” Jody Newton recalled. She immediately turned on the TV.
“I remember doing that and being glued to it and shocked at what was happening,” she said.
She contacted the schools.
“We had a wonderful relationship with the schools and the downtown leaders,” she said. She said the schools were in protection mode.
“Jody’s already thinking about the kids,” Dick Newton said. “We have thousands of family members on the base. We had actually more family members on the base than uniformed members so that’s why the part that Jody’s playing for the next several hours, much less the next several days, was central while I’m focused on the combat aspect of all this.”
He said there was concern about the safety of the base students attending schools downtown, but it was decided Minot Public Schools would take great care of the kids and let the school officials make the decisions in regard to the students. “And they did rightly,” he said.
Jody said the calls started coming in from the wives of the commanders leading units on the base.
“I decided we need to just gather them at the house,” Jody said. When they met, she said, she also wanted her husband to talk to them. “I wanted him to just let them know what is this. Is it really an attack because, of course, they were very, very concerned.”
Around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, she said, any of the wives who wanted to attend met. Dick Newton also stopped by for 10 or 15 minutes to talk to them about the situation.
At the meeting, Jody said, she and the wives worked out a system as to how they would be kept informed. At that time, few people had cell phones.
“The way of communicating was not like today,” Jody said. She would make a call to the wife of the commander for each area and then that person would carry it through. She said the wives were told they were welcome to call or come by anytime.
Back at the Command Post, Dick Newton had gathered together all the commanders.
He said the missile wing led by Col. Kimber McKenzie (retired later as a brigadier general) was still running 24/7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations.
“And did it brilliantly — keeping that mission going through this crisis. You can imagine the concern for the security about our 150 missile silos,” he said.
Newton said the mission at Minot AFB is a total Team Minot effort.
“You’ve got Minot community, Minot units, the base, the military but also the family members that Jody articulated,” he said.
Newton said he was getting constant updates by the base’s Office of Special Investigation (OSI) as to potential regional or local threats.
“It was a very, very surreal time. It’s hard to go back or presently talk to people about how strange it was,” he said.
Through Minot Mayor Carroll Erickson and the local police and state police, Newton said he had immediate response with the law enforcement and other agencies to really focus on Minot the city but also Minot the base.
When he thinks of 9/11, Newton said, “I just don’t think of the morning of 9/11, or the afternoon or the evening but all the way through that Friday or Saturday because we’re trying to get our aircraft unloaded, get weapons back in the weapons storage area and barely by the afternoon we’re already thinking about how we respond. The nation’s already responding — the president’s working his way back into the White House…,” he said.
“Already that moment we’re thinking about the safety and security of Minot, the base but also principally the ICBMs as well as the B-52 bombers, and then we’re beginning to think how is America going to respond?” he said.
That evening Newton started getting calls from four-star military leaders, first from Admiral Richard Mies, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, providing instructions or guidance “in the event that we had to do any type of actions — obviously to use common sense and judgment,” Newton said. The general also told him if he needed anything to call.
Newton said they were going “from a global exercise into a real world combat situation where I find in the back of my mind that we’re going to strike back and we’re going to strike back with B-52s and B-1s and other capabilities, and other U.S. national instruments of power.”
Among the measures taken for safety reasons were stringent checks of traffic entering the base.
“A term we weren’t used to using but we got used to it at some point during Iraq — IEDs (improvised explosive devices). We were very concerned about vehicle-borne IEDs and that’s why you saw the lines,” he said. He said they didn’t want any type of threat coming on the base and threatening the base population, aircraft, etc.
Newton said Mayor Erickson offered the Minot Police Department to come to the base and organize the long line of traffic for safety reasons but also for security reasons. Through Erickson and then Gov. (now U.S. senator) John Hoeven, the North Dakota Highway Patrol provided support with coverage 24/7 for about a week to 10 days.
“That was significant,” Newton said. He said a team like that cannot be put together the morning of 9/11.
When he saw the Pentagon had been attacked, Newton and the other commanders assembled turned their attention to the TV.
“We are under attack but this is extraordinary,” Newton responded to what had just happened. He then made a decision so everyone could focus on their work.
“I made a decision (to) turn off the TVs and focus on our job here at Minot Air Force Base. We’ll answer the phones, obviously, but we need to take care of business and that’s what we did. Chris Patterson ordered all the TVs down,” Newton said. He said several weeks later Patterson would be deployed to Diego Garcia as the deputy commander of bomber operations there.
Newton had the commanders he had assembled go through the checklist one more time — “What are we missing? Let’s focus on the mission at hand and let’s get ready to strike back,” he said. “First and foremost, we had to secure the base and secure the flight line but we also had to secure our people.”
He said he didn’t get much sleep for about 48 hours.
“That didn’t serve us all well. I’m glad I was in good physical condition,” he said , adding, “I don’t recall going home for two days.”
Two days later, on a Thursday, he said, “It was Jody’s birthday and I had forgotten her birthday which I had never done before.”
That day he and Jody decided it would be OK for her to take their daughter, Elizabeth, downtown for a sports event she was involved in but they would not stay long. This would help keep some degree of normalcy to their lives. However, when the two attempted to return home to the base, they were stuck in the backed up traffic line and didn’t get home until the early morning hours.
Then that morning about 3:30 a.m., Newton got a phone call at home that there was a report of intruders on Highway 83 at or around the fence and approaching the flight line. He ordered the base locked down and with his 9mm and flak vest he headed for the Command Post. Before leaving, he had Jody and their daughters go downstairs because he wasn’t sure if these were intruders or what was out there. For about four hours the base was on lockdown, helicopters were airborne and the ground was scoured between the southern end of the flight line and the perimeter of Highway 83. But nothing was found.
“Here I’m thinking we’re under combat conditions but I’m already going to combat at my own base at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” Newton said. “To this day, the girls remember that as just an extraordinary surreal moment.”
On the Friday following 9/11, a memorial service was held at the base chapel.
“I just remember that being very moving, appropriate and most suitable. It was a time of prayer and reflection,” Newton said. He said it also was to get the base populous gathered at the base chapel to think about what was happening in Minot and in the nation.
Jody Newton said it is significant to note that the Minot community was very supportive of the base.
“It’s very important to say the town and the civic leaders supported the base and were always there for us. They were absolutely wonderful,” she said.
Dick Newton said North Dakota’s congressional delegation — Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy — and then-governor Hoeven were always supportive as well.
“They were genuinely concerned about our family members and things associated with taking care of people. They knew it was a tough assignment,” Newton said.
The morning of 9/11 Newton had ordered all construction efforts off base unless those involved were living on base or assigned to the base. At the time, a major housing upgrade was being done on the base, but Newton didn’t allow any construction people for the housing project to come on base for about 10 days.
“About the sixth or seventh day of that, I remember Senator Dorgan gave me a call, just checking on a routine basis. He said he knew I had stopped the construction efforts on the base but is there any way to take a look at that decision?” he said. He said Dorgan told him he was not forcing him to bring them back on base but there were some obvious impacts of the temporary construction shutdown.
“I told him I would but I’m just not comfortable with bringing construction vehicles on the base when we’re under this threat of vehicles, IEDS and things like that. He did not second guess me, didn’t try to go over my head and talk to the secretary of the Air Force. That was the working relationship with the congressional delegation. That was just awesome,” Newton said.
He said on Sept. 14, Pomeroy made an unscheduled visit to the base. While in Newton’s office, Pomeroy said he would like to talk to the kids at school on base. Newton and Pomeroy talked about what the congressman could or would say to the kids. Newton gave him a few suggestions, including letting the kids know America is not in decline, obviously this was a sneak attack and to give them a very strong sense of confidence.
“It was a very, very meaningful visit but also an ensuing relationship that was just awesome,” Newton said.
Nearly a month after 9/11, on Oct. 7, 2001, the first strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda kicked off Operation Enduring Freedom when B-52s launched from the theater of operations, Newton said.
“That was, to me, extraordinary so I think of the morning of 9/11, and really fast forward to Oct. 7, 2001, when America struck back,” he said. “I’ll never forget — and Jody was with me — about seven days later, we had the first sendoff of the first deployers to go downrange to some classified location that were from Minot Air Force Base from the 5th Bomb Wing.”
During the Aug. 30 interview, Newton said the recent events in Afghanistan tie in directly with the events of 9/11. He said B-52s are downrange providing watch for the nation again, just like on Oct. 7, 2001.
“Twenty years later, Minot airmen and the 5th Bomb Wing are serving downrange again protecting us,” he said.
Newton is a frequent national security contributor to national media. He said the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was a debacle.
“What is happening on the ground is something that was self-imposed by the administration and something we could have avoided,” he said.
Jody Newton noted, “Twenty years ago this is what happened but we were addressing it and took care of it for 20 years. This now ends and the Taliban is back in control, and then there’s the Afghans who were supporting and helping us who wait on getting them out. We have literally opened the door to more continued attacks again.”
Dick Newton noted that since 2001, 2,448 Americans have been killed in action in Afghanistan plus the 13 military members killed in the attack at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, and more than 20,700 wounded. Approximately 66,000 Afghan military members, NATO patriots and allies have also been killed in action.
“The service of our veterans, especially our Afghan veterans in the Afghan War, deserve all the support, accolades and applause from this nation because they ran to the sound of guns and bore the brunt of this longest duration war. I believe they have done it brilliantly.
“All volunteers have served in the harshest conditions. Our son-in-law — he’s a major in the United States Air Force — he’s an Air Force special operations pilot and been deployed to Afghanistan several times so we know this firsthand. But the message is our men and women in uniform, many of them from the state of North Dakota, have shown brilliantly in Afghanistan and to this day until the last American is out.
“This is not a failure of our veterans. This is a failure of policymakers in Washington, D.C., at the highest level. The challenge is that our veterans are feeling the brunt of this debacle withdrawal,” Newton said.
He said those who were deployed, including those who were wounded and family members, are asking was it all worth it? He said he and Jody would say, “Absolutely, because they made the world a safer place on their watch. They served brilliantly in the past, they’re serving brilliantly to this very moment. We’re going to need them and they will — confidently I can say this — serve brilliantly in the future.”
Moving forward, he said, “We have to lift up our veterans and our family members. Of course, we’ve been striving for that for years. It’s going to become even more critical now that the method of the withdrawal and the way it’s come down is, just to me, misplaced and miscalculated, but their service still matters.”