It’s been 20 years since Lyndon Willms, a 1975 graduate of St. Elmo High School, was working inside of the Pentagon building that Sept. 11 morning when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was taking aim at his workplace.
At the time, U.S. Air Force Officer LTC Willms was working in the Pentagon as a Joint Strategic Planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the J7 Operational Plans and Joint Force Development Directorate. That’s located on the Potomac River side of the Pentagon.
Offices on that side of the building included those of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Hugh Shelton and the Pentagon press corps
“Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 was one of those days that we in the flying world used to call ‘clear and a million.’ Clear skies and it just seemed like you could see for a million miles – great flying weather,” Willms recounted.
Earlier in his Air Force career, Willms flew missions as an electronic warfare officer on B-52H aircraft based at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Michigan, and flew on RC-135 “Cobra Ball” reconnaissance aircraft based at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska.
He said after seeing a replay of the second jet crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers, he and his fellow workers were ready to take action.
“We broke up and started our emergency checklists and backing up our data off site,” Willms said.
That’s when American Airlines Flight 77 rammed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing more than 100 Pentagon personnel and all passengers on the aircraft.
“The office shook,” Willms recalled. “Not much of a shake, but enough for us to stop for a moment.”
After 9/11, Willms served as executive officer for a Joint Staff’s Crisis Action Team.
Today he’s an attorney in Carbondale, at the Lauderjung law firm. He lives in Murphysboro with his wife, Rita. His mother-in-law, Ester Crum, lives in Altamont.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 brings vivid enough memories for Willms. The current situation in Afghanistan makes them even more vivid.
“We had a lot of interaction with the planning teams going into Afghanistan and the beginning of Iraq,” Willms said about his work on the action team in 2001, before being reassigned to work with the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs Staff Chairman. “We always asked, What is the exit strategy?”
He said he received extensive military training before becoming a strategic planner during his time in the service to include the U.S. Air Force – Air War College; Armed Forces Staff College – National Defense University, Air Command and Staff College – U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps Command and Staff College – United States Marine Corps.
Willms said as their team were aware of the history of Afghanistan from the Russians prior to the U.S. entering the country.
“I think when we hit the 10-year point – after we got Osama bin Laden – after that point, we were looking at getting out, but I don’t think anyone figured out how to do that gracefully,” Willms said. “We always think about what is the mindset when you go into one of these things. These are tribal countries now.”
“The Taliban has risen to the top again and we’ll just have to see what comes out of this,” Willms said.
Willms wasn’t too surprised to find out the Taliban quickly took over Afghanistan.
“If you consider what happened in 1975 as we were leaving Vietnam, the North Vietnamese sort of swept in and took over,” he said.
Willms said when he was stationed in Hawaii in the late 1980s, every Dec. 7 survivors gathered to remember Pearl Harbor. He said one survivor told him the lessons they learned that day.
“He told me that it was a warning to America that a surprise attack could happen at any time. Little did I know 10 years later that his warning would become fact,” Willms said.
Willms graduated from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale with a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice. He earned his master’s in Business Organizational Management from the University of LaVerne and his Juris Doctor in 2008 from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
He served in several military leadership positions during his career as U.S. Air Force officer to include Deputy Chief, Information Superiority Division, Headquarters, United States Air Force, 1998-2000; Operations Officer, 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 1996-1998; Chief, Reconnaissance Planning, United States Strategic Command, 1993-1996; Flight Commander, 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 1990-1993; Chief, Operational Electronic Intel, United States Pacific Command, 1987-1990; Chief, Standardization and Evaluation, 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing 1984-1987 and Senior Standardization and Evaluation Electronic Warfare Officer, B-52H aircraft, 410 Strategic Bomb Wing, 1980-1984.
Some of the honors and awards Willms has received over the years include Joint Staff Action Officer of the Quarter, 55th Reconnaissance Wing’s Flight Commander of the Year, 6th Strategic Wing’s Junior Officer of the Quarter, Joint Staff Badge, Headquarter, United States Air Force Badge, awarded three times the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal awarded four times, Aerial Achievement Medal – awarded three times, Air Force Commendation Medal, Joint Services Achievement Medal and Air Force Achievement Medal.
Willms is a member of the Jackson County Bar Association, life member of the Air Force Association, Military Officers Association and Victory Baptist Church of Carterville.