Inside the cockpit of his F-16, contemplating the horrific and impossible task his country might require of him, then-Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville was overcome with a gutting realization: “We had failed.”

The United States’ defenses had not stopped terrorists from hijacking American passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001, or from flying them into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Now, Sasseville understood, another plane was in the air, and he might need to fly his own jet into it to bring it down, at the cost of his own life and that of all the passengers on board.

As it happened, United Airlines Flight 93 had already changed course, thanks to passengers who confronted the hijackers and caused the aircraft to crash in an open field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But that day would prove seminal for Sasseville in more ways than one.

Sasseville, who retired as the three-star vice chief of the National Guard Bureau at the end of May after nearly 40 years in uniform, has regularly been an honored guest at 9/11 memorial ceremonies and given press interviews about his fateful day in the cockpit on major anniversaries. From his Pentagon office, he can walk by his own flight suit, preserved behind glass as a memento of the heroism he and the small cohort of other F-16 pilots scrambled on that day exhibited.

It’s not always easy, he acknowledged, to keep such a difficult memory so fresh.

But his experience on 9/11 has given purpose to his work as a military leader. Across multiple high-ranking roles he held in the years that followed, including as the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Sasseville has pushed for ever-greater military preparedness — not only for another aircraft hijacking, but for shadowier cyber attacks, the rise of artificial intelligence and the spread of disinformation as well.

He believes that forgetting that feeling of failure and loss on Sept. 11 — the possibility of which grows with the passage of time — will put the U.S. at greater risk of the next attack.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m paranoid, but I’m very realistic about people wanting to continue to harm us and change our way of life, change the world order,” Sasseville said. “We need to continue to be clear-eyed.”

As the second-in-command of all National Guard troops since August 2020, Sasseville also has profound concerns about the future of the Guard and the increasingly varied roles the nation’s citizen-soldiers have been asked to fill.

On Jan. 7, 2021, he supported the activation of around 26,000 guardsmen to the nation’s capital, including more than 1,000 from his own D.C. National Guard. It’s a complicated memory: he’s proud of the troops who answered their nation’s call, but sees how the country’s unrest in the wake of the 2020 presidential election could have bred greater disaster.

Military Times interviewed Sasseville at the Washington Navy Yard in D.C. in late May, ahead of his retirement. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Military Times: You’re retiring as the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau. Walking by mementos in the Pentagon and having Sept. 11 follow you for 23 years — what has that been like?

Marc Sasseville: I still drive to the Pentagon; I can see the section right where the airplane hit. It’s really framed my thoughts of, we need to defend ourselves. We need to be ready for the next attack. What will that look like? We can’t let our guard down. I don’t think that’s really ever going to go away, even in retirement. It’s not obsessive, but it’ll be at the forefront of my thoughts. We’ve got people behind us to carry the mantle and continue to play the role of defender of the nation, and I’m grateful for the service that they’re about to provide the country. But it’s been a little weighty, to be honest with you.

You’re the second-to-last pilot scrambled on Sept. 11 to hang up the uniform (Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan Caine is still serving). How does that small cohort of pilots stay in touch?

My wingman and I, [Heather] “Lucky” Penney, we cross paths at events and anniversaries. Last Sept. 11, I had a bunch of them over to the house, and we had a nice little remembrance. I think we’re probably on the cusp of making it a more formal reunion-type thing. But, you know, I think it was still a very difficult day for a lot of us to process. Even two decades later, for those of us who lived through it up and close, it’s still a bit of a challenge. I’m thankful for the camaraderie — that’s something that I hope we can continue to do.

What do you feel you’ve been able to accomplish as a military leader to further your goal of making the nation and military safer and more resilient?

[At the National Guard Bureau], we’ve got this idea of deterrence by denial — denying the ability for, for the adversaries to get in. We’ve got some programs that link the states together and keep them informed. Recently, we’ve gone to extra lengths to work with the adjutant general to make sure that they are informed to the best of our ability of what’s out there, what the threats are, and where people might be coming from. Then, making sure that the money goes to readiness and training for the skills that we think that people will need in combat.

But there’s also a whole other persona, if you will, to National Guardsmen, which is to respond to the governor, when they’re not deployed, to do the things that the governor asks. We had tens of thousands of people respond to COVID. Four years ago, the same thing with civil unrest, and making sure that they had the equipment and the proper guidance to support their governors, their state officials, and whatever they were doing. That’s only increased recently. We’ve got states asking their guardsmen to do many things. In New York, for example, they’re doing a lot of work with migrants. Some states are asking their guardsmen to do some work in prisons; some states are asking for help with teaching, for example. You start to get a little bit to the edge where the boundaries are, but we do our absolute best to make sure that they’re well funded, they’re well-trained, and as equipped as possible.

Do you think in some cases, the boundaries do need to be better defined?

I think in the next four years, those seams will be clearer. Those boundaries have to become clear over the next several years as we go into these different periods of time with societal and political polarization, and maybe another round of civil disturbance, depending upon how things shake out over the next year. So I think the environment is ripe to clear a lot of that up. And I think that would be helpful for the country.

You were in the position of National Guard Bureau vice chief on Jan. 6, 2021. What went right and what went wrong that day?

The National Guard responded in an unprecedented manner by putting 26,000 guardsmen in the [National Capital Region] to help establish order. And I think the guard was the right choice at the time. What I would wish for in the future is that this area evolve to the point where, because it is so complicated with jurisdictions and authorities, that we develop to the point where somebody can be in charge. It’s very difficult from a military perspective, or even broadly, from a law enforcement perspective, I think, to defend it or to bring order to a very dangerous situation. Those seams can be exploited. And so somebody who’s watching very carefully could figure out a way to cause even greater harm.

You described having this very strong impression on Sept. 11 that the country’s defense mechanisms had failed. Was there any analogous feeling on Jan. 6?

What happened on Jan. 6 was not a foreign enemy, so I think the perspective is a little bit different there. The situation was very challenging and very unique. And II think it, frankly, took a lot of people off-guard from our perspective, and it continues to be such even today. Law enforcement really has primacy in these areas. One of [our international military partners] said, strikingly, that if you in uniform ever put your hands on your population, you will begin to lose the country. And so that has resonated with me ever since I heard that. The Guard is the right tool in some cases, but in a lot of cases, it’s really law enforcement responsibility. And I think we would defer to them first in all scenarios, where there’s a scenario like that, and only use the Guard as a last resort.

You got to take a farewell flight on the F-16 in mid-May. What was that like for you?

As soon as the microphone comes on, and the jet fuel starter turns on, and you hear all the noises and all the smells come back to you — it just reminds me of all the hours that I spent in “the office.” It just brought back how important the work that they do at the tactical level is. That is where the rubber meets the road. … I couldn’t be more thankful to [the D.C. National Guard] for taking the time to do that — give me the physical, give me the training, put me back in the jet. And I’m also thankful for everything that they do, that America’s warriors do, day in, day out.

The last 20 years have taught us so much about the realities of post-traumatic stress and how it manifests. In light of your own Sept. 11 experience, what has your journey been like?

Frankly, I still have a little bit of anxiety again. I don’t know that I’ve fully processed. I wouldn’t say that I’ve got PTSD, but it’s still there. What I try to do is mostly channel it into something that’s useful. If I can channel my emotions and my forward-looking desires, my thoughts that again, we will be faced with a different threat here pretty soon, and we need to think broadly and not get surprised again — if I can shepherd the crowd in that direction, that’s what brings me the most comfort. But thinking about the incident and smelling the smoke again and going through those memories — yeah, that’s all still there.

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