Witnessing 9/11 attack in New York steeled airman's resolve

wcrenshaw@macon.comSeptember 10, 2011 

WARNER ROBINS -- On Sept. 11, 2001, Kelly Salinas was a 21-year-old living with her grandmother in Hoboken, N.J., about two miles from the World Trade Center.

She was asleep that morning when she heard her grandmother screaming at her to wake up.

“She yelled, ‘Look what they are doing to our country,’ ’’ recalled Salinas, now a staff sergeant and honor guardsman at Robins Air Force Base. “I can still remember her exact words. She was crying.”

From their apartment, they watched the World Trade Center burn. Then they climbed on top of the 10-story building and saw the second plane hit, and later they saw the towers fall.

Five days earlier Salinas had signed up for the Air Force with a six-month deferment. The attacks made her suddenly realize that what she thought would be a relatively safe career choice was now fraught with peril. She could have gotten out of her deferment.

“It crossed my mind for maybe a minute,” she said. “But I was so upset over what had happened as the whole country was. It was like my backyard was attacked. I was glad I had the opportunity to join and do something.”

Six months later she went to boot camp, then to school to become an aircraft maintainer. She has served her entire career at Robins, with most of it in the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS. She has served four deployments in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

JSTARS aircraft are a critical, heavily used reconnaissance and surveillance tool, providing ground forces with myriad information during combat operations.

Salinas currently is serving a four-year special duty in the honor guard at Robins. Friday, she was given a special assignment at a ceremony at the Museum of Aviation recognizing the 10th anniversary of the attack. She and another honor guard member folded a flag that had been draped over a piece of the Pentagon rubble.

Salinas said she has relished her 10 years in the Air Force, including her time in the honor guard.

She has felt particularly enriched by the experiences of serving at the funerals of World War II veterans, and she also has served at funerals for active-duty airmen killed in combat.

“I can’t imagine my next 10 years having so much joy and pride as these past 10 years have had,” she said. “After 9/11 I was very upset. It was such a tragedy, and the way it affected us and the way we all came together, it really says something about the country. Even though things are bad now with the economy, I think eventually we will get back to that, that feeling of togetherness. I hope at least.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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