From 9/11 at the Pentagon to Afghanistan

Teresa Connor, second from the left, and Army Lieutenant Colonel Angela Funaro met with three Afghan public affairs officers in Kabul. “The Afghan military and police forces have women serving in their units,” said Ms. Connor. “The coalition as well as several non-government organizations are very supportive of integration of women into government and other organizations.” The Afghan woman, shown on the left in the photo, died of injuries sustained after a bombing at the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. (Submitted photo)

Teresa Connor, second from the left, and Army Lieutenant Colonel Angela Funaro met with three Afghan public affairs officers in Kabul. “The Afghan military and police forces have women serving in their units,” said Ms. Connor. “The coalition as well as several non-government organizations are very supportive of integration of women into government and other organizations.” The Afghan woman, shown on the left in the photo, died of injuries sustained after a bombing at the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — A text, with orders that she would spend six months in Afghanistan, came a year ago — on Sept. 11.

Teresa Connor was at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial when she received it.

The now-retired U.S. Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel had picked up her son at the University of Delaware that day and they drove down to the memorial to reflect on what happened there in 2001.

“My kids were like preschool and second grade when it happened,” she said. “Now they’re college and just graduated college.”

A few days ago, she took time to talk with this editor about her 28-year military journey in the life of a public affairs officer.

Lt. Col. Connor’s contact with the newspaper goes back to the late 1980s when she was with the 436th Airlift Wing.

She was there when Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield were ongoing in the early 1990s.

She switched over to the Air Force Reserves and worked for the Air Staff and then the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

Her career also took her back to Dover Air Force Base for a stint with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office.

In April, she returned from Afghanistan where she served on a “train, assist and advise” program in Kabul for six months.

From the Editor logo copy copy“What a cool way to finish up my career,” she said.

Our interview ranged from the 9/11 experience to her time in Afghanistan last year.

“9/11 is often remembered for the terrible things that happened that day,” she said in a follow-up email. “However it’s really important to remember the outpouring of love and kindness — the genuine heart of humanity — that was visible throughout the world. There were long lines of people waiting to donate blood, people opening their doors to strangers in locations where airplanes diverted. Americans bonded together and the world supported us in a difficult time.

“Obviously the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is a result of 9/11. Mainstream media doesn’t cover it much. Afghanistan is a poor country in some ways, however, it’s rich in culture and beauty. The international efforts to help Afghanistan do matter. I’m honored to have served there and to have had the privilege of serving my country.”

***

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Col. Connor was in the Air Staff’s public affairs office, in the first of a two-week Reserve requirement.

The staff had the televisions on to watch news broadcasts from the major networks. They saw the first plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers.

And then the second one hit.

At about 9:37 a.m., staff in the Pentagon heard the roar of an incoming plane — somewhat ordinary given the path along the Potomac River toward Reagan National Airport.

“But this one was really loud — like it was the Thunderbirds taking off or something,” said Lt. Col. Connor. “And, then you hear boom … the impact.

“In our office, the blinds flew in.”

The hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was flown into the western facade of the Pentagon. Reports say it was traveling at more than 500 mph and it tore through three of the building’s five rings, leaving a hole 30 yards wide.

All 59 people on the plane and 125 Pentagon employees inside the building were killed.

Lt. Col. Connor’s office was on the other side of the massive Pentagon, on the fifth floor of the middle ring.

Her thoughts ran from worrying about her young kids back in Delaware to what might happen next.

Then an evacuation started. At that point, they didn’t know the plane had been flown into the Pentagon.

“Going down the stairwell from the fifth floor, there were no windows,” she remembered. “If we get hit on this side,

Teresa Connor facilitated a mural outside the U.S. Embassy that featured the work of Omaid Sharifi of The ArtLords who use art as a medium to bring social issues to the forefront and to try to stimulate conversation about important issues.

Teresa Connor facilitated a mural outside the U.S. Embassy that featured the work of Omaid Sharifi of The ArtLords who use art as a medium to bring social issues to the forefront and to try to stimulate conversation about important issues.

there’s not going to be a way out.”

Once outside, they moved toward the Potomac River. They saw beautiful blue skies, she remembers, but not on the other side.

“You could see the black smoke,” she said. “Surreal is the best adjective there was for it. Americans don’t think about being attacked like that. Hopefully, it’ll never happen again.”

***

That night in her hotel room, across the highway from the Pentagon, she could hear the protective cover of fighter jets. She could still see the building on fire.

Her children, Sean and Cameron, were in Delaware 11dsn-from-the-editor-mural-2with her husband, Chuck, and her mother. Friends and family were also concerned about him because he is a pilot for United.

“I felt like I wanted to cry,” she said. “But I thought, ‘I’m still alive, other people are dead.’ I remember getting this pressure headache about how I was supposed to be reacting to it.

“I was very thankful I was going back to work the next day, needing to be around other people, answering the phone and focusing on something.”

One of her first calls was from a reporter who had been working on a story about B-2 deployable shelters in Guam. He apologized, but she gladly took the call. She was reminded of President George W. Bush’s words that business would go on.

“It gave some normalcy to an unusual day,” she said.

Over the weekend, she returned to Delaware. She recalls talking to her children about the bad people in the world, and the good ones in places like Afghanistan who had moms and dads tucking in their children and reading to them, too.

***

Fast-forwarding to 2012, Lt. Col. Connor had been asked to take on a public affairs role for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office.

After 9/11, the base mortuary received the remains of those killed at the Pentagon. Dover is home to the nation’s only port mortuary.

It was there she witnessed several dignified transfers of fallen military men and women.

“It is the most humbling and honorable mission I have ever been a part of,” she said.

She said the role was challenging, balancing the basic scientific side of the mortuary with the human, emotional side and what the families of the fallen were experiencing.

Lt. Col. Connor remembers talking to a young lieutenant about it.

“I told him, ‘I don’t want to live in the science part. These were real humans with moms and dads and little boys and girls. But if I live in this world I’ll be a basket case and I don’t want to be cold and unfeeling.’

“He said, ‘Yes, there’s a line but it wiggles.’”

***

The mortuary staff was close-knit and remains so, said Lt. Col. Connor.

A young lieutenant she worked with then was the one who contacted her last year about possibly serving with a “train, advise and assist” team in Afghanistan. She arranged a Facetime interview with Army Gen. Wilson Shoffner.

It was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, what it describes on its website as “a key component to the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan, assisting Afghan authorities in providing security and stability, while creating the conditions for reconstruction and development.”

In Lt. Col. Connor’s case, her expertise is public affairs. She worked on job descriptions and laid some groundwork for a public affairs team at the “palace level” — comparable to the White House here.

Largely, her time there was spent inside the NATO compound in Kabul but there were a few opportunities to travel into the city, and a mountain hike in which she looked down on the city of 3.5 million people. She described the country as beautiful, with its snow-covered mountain tops and the pink tones those mountains took on at sunrise.

There were direct dealings with some of the Afghan people, including media training for a team of women in the Afghanistan military. Lt. Col. Connor said the Afghan women in public affairs were relegated to administrative work mostly.

Sadly, one of those women was injured, and later died, after a bomb explosion at the Ministry of Defense.

“That story was tragic,” she said. “The military promoted her before she died so her benefits could be greater. Once she was injured, they didn’t abandon her.”

Teresa Connor helped set up for Afghanistan’s first air show during her time there in 2015. Shown in the background at the Afghan Air Force Base are Afghanistan President Ghani, the Minister of Defense and the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

Teresa Connor helped set up for Afghanistan’s first air show during her time there in 2015. Shown in the background at the Afghan Air Force Base are Afghanistan President Ghani, the Minister of Defense and the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

In a ride into Kabul, she said she saw meat and fruit for sale on sidewalks and goats. Along the route, she saw a bridge where drug addicts were hanging out.

She attended some unique events such as an International Women’s Day in which young girls sang and one gave an impassioned speech about hopes and dreams.

Lt. Col. Connor also had a role in setting up for Afghanistan’s first military air show which was attended by its President Ashraf Ghani. She said she was the only woman there assisting with the setup in a hangar that had upholstered chairs and couches and bright red rugs.

She said, “They (the Afghanistan government) wanted to say to the people, ‘Your government can protect you. Your government has an air force.’”

“If there’s one thing they have, it’s rugs and scarves,” said Lt. Col. Connor, who opted not to wear scarves during her work there.

She had a small scare at the Italian Embassy where there was a Taliban rocket attack on the day she and a friend were enjoying a pizza-baking opportunity with a stone oven inside the building. They were hustled to a basement for safety, but no one was injured.

Lt. Col. Connor said she appreciated the chance to work alongside people from other nations and with the Afghan people.

Her lasting mark, at least visibly, is colorful paint on a concrete blast wall outside the U.S. Embassy.

Lt. Col. Connor facilitated a mural with the ArtLords and artist Omaid Sharifi who uses murals as a way to bring social issues to the forefront.

This mural showed a woman with a child in traditional garb next to a woman in a police uniform. Words next to it read, “Afghan female police a force for good.”

In one of her favorite photos, she’s wearing a pistol holstered to her side while painting a portion of the mural.

“It was a labor of love,” said Lt. Col. Connor. “Omaid said, ‘I love your enthusiasm. I promise we’ll get this done.’”

It was finished the weekend prior to her return home to Magnolia, Delaware.

“I would never give up the six months that I was there,” said Lt. Col. Connor. “I never felt threatened. I know they took our security seriously. Yes, something could happen, but you can’t live your life being afraid.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.