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'A world without America': City administrator reflects on his service during War on Terror

City Administrator Brian Winningham tells about his experience following 9/11.

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City Administrator Brian Winningham, pictured, served in the U.S. Military during the War on Terror. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

Ronald Reagan once said that, "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world," but for men like City Administrator Brian Winningham, there is little doubt. Winningham, prior to entering the sphere of city governance, spent a career in the military helping protect innocent victims of violence under a totalitarian and radical terrorist regime in the Middle East. His service among the countless other Americans who have for two decades kept terror away from our shores.

In a sit-down interview, Winningham noted that like most Americans, he remembers Sept. 11, 2001 — vividly.

Winningham had been in the military for about 11 years at the time of the 9-11 attacks, having been stationed in the U.K. as a student at the British Counterterrorism School for bomb disposal in England on that fateful Tuesday.

“I was on my last problem of a school that only three U.S. officers had ever graduated from. I was leaning over a mortar bomb problem, I was downrange in a bomb suit and I was trying to complete the problem, knowing that it was my last one. And after that problem was done, I would graduate. The instructor had come up to me and said, ‘Hey mate, the problem’s over. The Twin Towers have just been attacked,’” Winningham said. “I thought that he was trying to get me to take my helmet off or do something unsafe, so I’d fail the task. So I didn't do that.”

Instead, Winningham says he continued focusing on the task at hand, and attached a line to the bomb before returning to the safety area and pulling the bomb out of the mortar tube. The problem resolved, his instructor looked at him with bewilderment before Winningham realized that his earlier statement wasn’t a test — the United States was under attack.

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“At that moment, a flood of thoughts went through my mind on what's going on… I was stuck in the United Kingdom, and my family — (though) at that moment we lived in Germany — had traveled to the U.S. to visit family while I was in this course, because I was going to be gone for four weeks. So they were stuck in the U.S. in California. I was stuck in the U.K.” Winningham noted.

It would be another three weeks before Winningham would reunite with his family, but the events of that day and the following years like ink have stained his memory.

“I can remember like it was yesterday. We knew that the world had changed forever, especially for us who were bomb disposal and people that were into counterterrorism. I just knew and all of those around me knew,” he recalled.

When the War of Terror began, Winningham would find himself in his first mission as escort with then Secretary of State Colin Powell in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He reflected on his time in the Middle East, remembering the Fall of Kandahar, Afghanistan in December of 2001.

“All those memories flood back because of what's happening now. Currently, 20 years later, it's devastating to us who have spent all those years trying to not have this ever happen again,” Winningham said. “And so the hope is that we make better decisions now to where we don't allow the next 9-11 to happen.”

As Desert Shield was taking place, Winningham trained as a truck driver at Fort Dix in New Jersey in the summer of 1990. Toward the end of Desert Sheild, Winningham and his military brothers and sisters all knew that another war was on the horizon.

“The things that mattered were so monumental, and yet seemingly disappeared if they weren't life or death,” he said. “It changes the mindset of somebody; families; friendships where the things that you were so worried about before probably were smaller, because the things that were actually happening in life to other people were life changing or monumental, and especially the loss of life... from the Twin Towers to the Pentagon to that field of Pennsylvania.”

Coming out of the Clinton administration, military policies reflected more on respect and concern rather than building a structured soldier's body and mind, Winningham said.

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“So here we are, I'm an infantry officer at the time during the Clinton years and we were more concerned with people's feelings and consideration of others and not being the sharpest soldier to defend our freedom… I don't disagree that you should be kind to others, but the military is designed to win our wars and I wanted my soldiers to be the best at defending themselves and frankly, killing the enemy, so that I can come home to my family and so could they. Nobody wants to do that by the way; nobody in their right mind, but going to war isn't really our right mind,” he remarked.

Once President George W. Bush announced the United States was going to partake in the War on Terror, that “consideration of others” philosophy transitioned into combat skills and warrior tasks. Military units brought back generals of the past to help revitalize a combat army, Winningham added.

From commanding the 720th Ordnance Company Mannheim, Germany, to deploying multiple teams in support of Operation Enduring Freedom including commanding Explosive Ordnance Disposal forces during Operation Avid Recovery, in Lagos, Nigeria, Winningham was stationed in various locations during his time in the service.

“I just always found myself doing the same things over and over, which is making sure that before teams deployed, myself included, that we had done everything we could before we left; that once you're on the field you can't make up for a lot of bad training. That you always rise to the level of your training not expectation. And then I wanted to make sure that everybody was fully aware that they might not come back,” Winningham said, pausing, “It's very, it's very emotional and yet, macabre and there’s a lot of gallows humor involved.”

However, the reality of making sure his soldiers had their wills updated, next of kin on speed dial and no matter what occurs, that families know that you’re coming back.

“That was always my briefing to people, make sure your family knows you’re coming back. That’s all you need to tell them. And then, know that you may not,” he said. “What a dichotomy. I haven’t said that out loud in like 15 years.”

As one of the few Americans who was able to take action, Winningham noted that the recent news of the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan is troublesome for those who served.

“My personal thoughts are: what a huge mistake by the political leaders. What an amazing job by those that were told to go to this mission; amazing. And sad that we had 13 of our (servicemen) killed. But every one of those leaders, soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen that are on the ground, what an absolute amazing job they did. But what a shame that we didn't have the political will to do what we know how to do best, which is complete a mission,” he reflected. “... Do I feel betrayed? Absolutely, I feel betrayed. But the time that we spent in Afghanistan for everybody who did the mission, we created an incredible vision for what could be, what freedom can be on for 20 years. We created an alternate universe for Afghanis and the world that when we're there, it's not the Taliban. When we're there, it's a vision of freedom. What is it now? What you're seeing is a world without America in Afghanistan now. Think about that. That's a world without America.”

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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