111th ATKW officer recounts 9/11 as reason to serve on the ground, in the skies

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond
  • 111th Attack Wing
Sept. 10, 2001 was utterly typical for him, no different than previous nights. He weaved through telecommunications tasks like wind around the World Trade Center – the buildings in which he was working. Finishing just before midnight, he boarded the New York City Transit Subway Line. As the city slept above, he sped beneath boroughs from Manhattan to Queens. It was an unseasonably warm commute home and almost too comfortable as he deboarded the Number 7 train.

That pleasant night transformed into morning.

“… depression, sadness, anger,” Maj. Michael Gielbeda, 111th Operations Support Squadron cyber operations officer, said while recalling the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “…and a feeling of not being able to do anything about it. I was in my apartment in Queens and looking out of my window, I could see the smoke come from the [twin] towers.”

Gielbeda’s New York accent thickened, his voice lowered, “I turned on the t.v. and there it was; it was the same view from my apartment.” And he said he wondered who’d done it, moreover, what he was going to do about it. He was a guy who fixed things.

Five years prior, 18-year-old Gielbeda was stationed at the former McClellan Air Force Base, Calif. working in ground-radio communications. Being part of an Air Force engineering and installation unit meant a lot of responsibility and even more travel, especially if you’re good at what you do, which he was. But after four years, road-weary and homesick, New York City’s siren call was persuasive. He headed home, garnering a civilian-equivalent of his military profession with a workspace extending from Central Park to Wall Street.

And after the 9/11 attack, he was one of the few behind the caution tape, charged with the formidable task of restoring both the communication lines and spirit of a nation.

“I remember the pictures that were posted on the fences and churches,” he said. “Family members were putting up pictures of their loved ones, trying to locate them or anyone who’d seen them. And that’s when it really hit home.”

Despite months of successfully rebuilding the city’s communication platforms, Gielbeda never felt a sense of redress. There was a discomfort - the discomfort one feels from not finding resolution.

“I was helping, but it wasn’t enough,” said Gielbeda. “I had a friend who was [in an engineering and installation squadron] in the New York Air National Guard.” It didn’t take any persuasion for him to decide to enlist and, after meeting with a recruiter, he became an Air National Guardsman in April 2002. Doing so quelled the nagging feeling he had since the ash draped over his beloved city months earlier.

He gave the 213th Engineering Installation Squadron, Stewart Air National Guard Base, N.Y., 12 combat-and-deployment-heavy years of service.

In 2014, now an officer, he found himself facing a new challenge at an Air National Guard base just outside of Philadelphia. Horsham Air Guard Station was rebuilding from the rubble left by a 2010-2011 Base Realignment and Closure. The phoenix of the installation would be a remotely-piloted aircraft mission; but, it would take a dedicated and determined cadre to bring it into fruition. He knew this was his path; afterall, he fixed things.

Gielbeda joined the 111th Attack Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in April 2014. And two years later, the 103rd Attack Squadron here reached initial operational capability through its first combat air patrol with the MQ-9 Reaper.

Now, as part of the 111th Operations Group here, the Air National Guard major is working to continue supplying the communication that secures the safety of his comrades and civilians abroad.

“Everything with the RPA mission is connected through communications,” said Staff Sgt. Olanrewaju Ojo, 111th OSS, who works with Gielbeda. “We’re ensuring the feed is secure, connected and without enemy intrusion.” The work of the communications squadron feeds the Reaper, which fuels the fight against those attempting to harm the U.S. military, allies and noncombatants.

For many, the 9/11 attack remains one of the most agonizing days in recent U.S. history. But some – like Gielbeda – have taken that anguish and put it toward service. Each day, he and others in the 111th OG here ensure that the U.S. military oversees receives the support to accomplish their mission.

“We work to keep our country safe by both watching and fighting the enemy from the sky in another country,” stated Geilbeda. He said that he hopes his story will inspire others to find a way to serve their neighborhood, state or country. Even those who don’t pursue military service can still help – even if it’s just finding a trouble and being the one willing to fix it.