Command center shift leader holds deep ties to 9-11

By Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher | NORAD and U.S. NORTHCOM Public Affairs | May 27, 2010

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. –When Air Force Reserve Col. Jim Zietlow arrived at the Pentagon, the first thing he saw was people working on the new bus stop. It was scheduled to be moved 800 feet away after terrorists bombed two embassies in Africa in 1998. When they first started, Zietlow thought it was a great idea. Now…

Command center shift leader holds deep ties to 9-11
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Col. Jim Zietlow, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command command center shift leader, touches the NORAD and U.S. NORTHCOM 9-11 Memorial outside the commands' headquarters. Zietlow worked at the Pentagon and United Airlines during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher)

Too little, he thought. Too late…

Just past the half-completed construction, smoke was rising from the gaping smoldering hole in the Pentagon as more people searched for survivors. It was Sept. 18, 2001, and Zietlow had spent the last week trying to find out who amongst his friends and coworkers, both in the Pentagon and in his other job at United Airlines, were okay and who amongst them weren’t.

It was not Zietlow’s first brush with terrorism, and it wouldn’t be his last. The New London, Wis., native and 1987 Air Force Academy graduate had seen the aftermath of a number of terrorist attacks from Dharan to the Khobar Towers and now Sept. 11. It was these brushes with terrorism, beginning with a ride in a C-141 with a canister of nerve gas, that would eventually lead him to U.S. Northern Command, where finally he could be in a position to stop them.

In 1995, Zietlow, then a young captain with the 9th Airlift Squadron out of Dover Air Force Base, Del., boarded a C-141 at Travis Air Force Base in California with the rest of his crew, hitching a ride back to the east coast. Among the passengers sharing the space in the back of the Starlifter was a metal canister covered with warning labels.

“It had red X’s all over it, and ‘Danger, Poison,’ signs on it, and no one told us what it was,” Zietlow recalled. “I was like, ‘what is that all about?’”

Upon landing at Andrews AFB, Md., Zietlow found out.

“We park at the hotspot, away from everything else, and all of a sudden all these cop cars and guys with suits come running up, unload the canister and whisk it off,” he said. “At that point, we asked the commander of the ‘141 what was in that. He said, ‘Oh, that was evidence from the sarin gas attack in Japan.’”

That attack, carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995, killed 13 people and wounded more than 50 others. It was the most serious attack to be carried out inside Japan since the end of the World War II.

It was also Zietlow’s first brush with some part of terrorism.

“That piqued my interest in terrorism,” Zietlow said. “I thought ‘okay, that stuff happens overseas.’ But that was the first time I had seen the evidence of it with my own eyes. It was one of those things that I thought was just interesting. But to be sitting there with the evidence while the FBI took custody, it highlighted to me that there was a threat out there.”

That threat would make itself known to Zietlow again in November of that year when his crew was tasked to bring home the remains of five U.S. servicemembers killed in a terrorist attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“We flew into Dhahran before the attack occurred,” Zietlow said. “We were staying there overnight, and I got a call from Scott AFB, saying there had been an attack in Riyadh near where we were. They said, ‘there are unconfirmed reports that five to seven Americans are dead. Can you fly there and bring them home?’”

On Nov. 13, 1995, a car bomb went off outside a U.S.-leased building that killed several people, five of them Americans. Being so close to the area, Zietlow’s C-5, which was in the area doing a check-ride, was called in.

“We flew into Riyadh and the next day there was the ceremony,” he said. “They brought the flag-draped caskets with members of our military who had been killed in the attack. That’s when it really kind of hit me, watching these caskets being loaded. It hit me that this threat isn’t just confined to other places. They were targeting Americans.”

On June 25, 1996, Americans were targeted again when terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers in Dhahran. A few weeks later, once again coming on the heels of an attack, Zietlow stayed at the complex and saw the mangled remains of the building.

“I walked to the north side of the complex where there used to be a fence-line,” he said. “It was gone, and on the north end there was a barracks, like a dormitory, several stories high, and the whole front face of the dormitory was gone. You could see all the individual cubes, and the debris was all over. There was a hole blown in the ground where I guess the truck had driven up outside the fence and had detonated it. I mean it just captured my thoughts. They were doing their jobs, and their lives were taken without due justice.”

In May of 2001, Zietlow left the Air Force to find a life for himself and his family free of the dangers and hardships of military life and, he hoped, free of the kind of terrorist attacks he felt were becoming more frequent.

So he went to work for United Airlines.

For about four months, life was good for Zietlow who flew for United while continuing to serve his country as an Air Force Reservist stationed in the Pentagon.

“I said ‘great! I’m going to join my friends out in the civilian sector.’ I’ve got my dream job, I decided to go to the Air Force Reserve as a legislative liaison,” he said. “In the summer of 2001, I was happy as I could be.”

It didn’t last. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airliners, two of them United Airlines aircraft piloted by Zietlow’s coworkers, and began their attack on the United States.

“I turned on the television about 9 o’clock Eastern time, and that’s when it started for me,” he said. “I got an accountability call from the Pentagon saying, ‘Jim, were you in the building? Are you safe?’ I got a call from United, making sure I wasn’t commuting through New York or Washington.”

With friends and coworkers in the Pentagon, at United and working in Manhatten, 9/11 for Zietlow was a triple threat.“My 1987 classmate from the Air Force Academy, LeRoy Homer, was the first officer on United Flight 93, which crashed into Shanksville, Penn.,” Zietlow said. “My friend, Dan Hooten, was in Corridor Five of the Pentagon when American Flight 77 hit. He was having a conversation, as he related back to me, when the airplane hit. The next thing he remembers is being thrown to his knees, there was smoke and burning fuel, and he crawled all the way to the south parking lot. Between LeRoy, Dan, 18 of my United crewmates, my Pentagon friends and my friends in Manhatten, it hit me in the gut.”

Zietlow had seen the aftermath of terrorists attacks since 1995, but they had always been in far-flung places, not his home. With some friends dead, some injured and the country at war, Zietlow decided the best thing he could do was leave the civilian world behind again and get back into the fight.

“I spent the next three months wearing out a pair of shoes in my neighborhood, taking walks with my wife, trying to figure out what I was going to do,” he said. “I remember one day in 2002, I saw Jim Lehrer on NewsHour, interviewing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Myers, and he had announced the stand-up of an organization called NORTHCOM.”

The announcement was the catalyst that spurred Zietlow into action. For the first time in months, he said, he knew what to do.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m going to NORTHCOM,’” he said. “’I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to find my way out to NORTHCOM. They’re going to protect the country.’”

At the end of 2002, Zietlow, now a major, found a Reserve position in the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command Programs, Resources and Analysis Branch here.

“It was at that time that I took my program manager skills from the Pentagon and brought them out here,” he said. “There was a big effort to plus up programs, and I was right in the middle of everything, from internal radars to make sure we had a radar picture here to working on other sensors, to making sure we had our quick reaction forces fully funded. Later I ended up at the Standing Joint Forces Headquarters, and I was constantly on the road, trying to set up operational procedures and responding to natural disasters.”

Zietlow continued to work issues within USNORTHCOM, from Hurricane Katrina to the Republican National Convention in 2004. In June 2008, Zietlow found a new way to serve, as a NORAD and U.S. NORTHCOM command center deputy director.

“I had made the promotion list for colonel,” he said. “And they said ‘with your experience and your background, we need you to help lead things,’ and I said, ‘Oh, absolutely!’”

In June 2009, Zietlow moved up again, becoming a command center director for one of the crews in the command center, a position responsible for monitoring air, space, missile, cyber, land and maritime sensors and approaches and looking for potential threats as they approach North America. They are the eyes and ears of the NORAD and USNORTHCOM commander, reporting time-critical information on anything that threatens the U.S. to the commander. With only minutes or even seconds to respond to a terrorist attack, it was the new front line.

“I was on duty the day the Fort Hood shooting happened,” he said. “And I thought, ‘here we go again.’ Another terrorist attack, and it’s on our soil. It was a busy afternoon, and I felt I was right back in the groove with the terrorism.”

But this time, Zietlow said, it was different. For 15 years, he had come to the scenes of terrorist attacks too late, only being able to help with the aftermath, if at all. This time, he was out front.

“I’m actually right there, getting the four-star [commander]the information he needs, and I felt like all that preparation and experience was helping me make recommendations, working proactively, I was out in front making sure we made the right decisions,” he said. “I felt like I was finally making an impact and protecting the country where back in 1995 it was just ‘well, that’s something that happens overseas.’ I had finally reached the right place at the right time.”

Zietlow was once again out in front of history on Christmas Day 2009, when a passenger onboard a Northwest Airlines flight enroute to Detroit allegedly attempted to detonated plastic explosives hidden in his underwear.

“At 11:30 a.m. we heard over one of our conference calls that there was something happening on a Northwest flight going into Detroit,” Zietlow said. “We investigated and a few minutes later we heard of a possible terrorist attack. I worked with our folks in the command center, giving the general options and making sure our key leaders were in the discussion. I spent the next few hours making sure we were ready to respond anywhere in the U.S. in case there were any more bombers waiting.”

“To me, that’s where it came full circle,” he continued. “Because this was an attempted, confirmed terrorist attack inside the U.S., we still weren’t sure at that point, but Christmas Day was a confirmed attack. I felt very good what my crew was doing, what our partners were doing, and it was a big contrast from where our country was before 9/11.”

Zietlow continues to stand a watch in the command center, making every effort to remain in front of the conflict and keep the people of North America safe from the kind of terrorist attacks that troubled him for 15 years. For a man who’s spent 15 years looking for the right place and the right time, he said he feels he’s finally found that among the men and women at NORAD and USNORTHCOM. From his post at the command center, he helps lead a mission with a direct impact, not only on himself and his family, but his friends at the Pentagon, his former coworkers at United and the friends he left behind on the east coast.

He said it was all worth it.

“I feel really good about what NORAD and U.S. NORTHCOM represents,” he said. “I’m right there, making things happen. We have lot of unity we didn’t have on 9/11. We’re in good shape, and there’s opportunities to make it even better.”

Fifteen years after sitting next to a tank of sarin gas on a flight to Andrews AFB, Zietlow said he was finally where he belonged.