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Follwing terror attacks, Mortenson helped plan Afghanistan action

Tom Mortenson was one of the eight key planners of the operation into Afghanistan after the 9-11 terror attacks.

When the second tower of the World Trade Center was hit, everybody knew it was an act of war.

That had military members of every kind, as well as their families, thinking about what would inevitably come next.

One of the few people who would make some of those key decisions for our soldiers preparing for battle is Tom Mortenson, Becker County's most recent administrator.

Mortenson wore a different hat on 9-11-01 -- an army hat which donned a shiny colonel, signifying his rank with the United States Central Command, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

He was working there as a strategic war planner, one of eight personnel responsible for geographic operations in the Middle East.

"That day we were working on our usual plans that we had for different operations, and when we heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, we were all puzzled," said Mortenson, "When the second plane hit, that's when my life changed."

Mortenson says while it took the general public a while to decipher who was behind the attacks, he knew instantly.

"I knew. I knew. The U.S. government and the Department of Defense had been tracking Al-Qaeda's moves for quite some time," said Mortenson, "And not too long before that, when I had just arrived at the U.S. Central Command, Al-Qaeda had attacked the USS Cole in the port of Yemen. So, I knew."

From that moment on, Mortenson says he and the other handful of war planners were instantly locked down to the base, kept isolated, as they then had to plan the mission of their lives.

"Our objective was to displace Al-Qaeda's cells and the Taliban from Afghanistan."

Mortenson says he wasn't allowed to go home and worked 16-hour days, in an effort to put together the quick response Americans were looking for.

"There was not only tremendous pressure, but tremendous responsibility because you're dealing with human life," said Mortenson, "not just our military people, but our allies and you try to avoid collateral damage to where you inflict pain on the innocent civilians."

Mortenson says they worked to construct the plan that took the U.S. into Afghanistan and built the united alliance for the operation.

"And 27 days later, we had Operation Enduring Freedom," said Mortenson.

The plan that Mortenson helped construct was first approved by General Tommy Franks, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then President George W. Bush.

"Our PowerPoint presentation was 472 slides long," said Mortenson, "that's how much information we had going into this."

Mortenson says he realizes he had the chance to do something few people could.

"I had the opportunity to work on paying back those sorry son of a guns that took on our country and killed thousands of innocent people."

But with that responsibility, came a dark side that Mortenson says he now has to live with. He also ended up planning operations into Iraq as well.

"It's a totally different world for those of us who have had to write a letter home to a parent because of the decisions we have made," said Mortenson.

Ten years later, the Army Colonel is retired (just as of this past January) and living life in Detroit Lakes.

And although he has his own, unique memories of 9-11, he hopes what people think of when remembering that day is the heroes who have sacrificed because of war.

"All the young men and women of our country and other countries that allied with us -- people who have given their lives, who have lost their families to divorce, or who were physically impaired because of what we tried to do."

Mortenson says reflecting upon the operation 10 years later, he wouldn't have changed any of the initial operations, but wishes we could have gotten Bin Laden and other terrorists more quickly.

"It was highly successful at first, but I think since then we've drifted back into our comfort zone," said Mortenson, "And what people need to remember is that we are still subject to attacks."

Mortenson says he also hopes everybody stops and thinks about the heroes of Flight 93, about the firefighters, police officers and first responders who were willing to give their lives to help others in a time of need.

"It's a day to reflect on our values and see what unified our country on that day, because we stood as a people united that day," said Mortenson, "The America we knew pre 9-11 has changed, but our people haven't. We're still strong, and I think this event of the 10-year anniversary should rekindle that in us."