Weston veteran describes 9/11 and the aftermath on board the USS Kennedy

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WESTON, Wis. (WSAW) -- “We didn’t realize how much the world would change.”

Natalie Wenzel, a mother and former Navy aviation electronics technician living in Weston, recalled the day 18 years ago that changed both the course of American history—and the literal direction of her ship, the USS John F. Kennedy.

Natalie had joined the Navy in Iowa where she had been raised, and had gone through boot camp followed by six months of specialized training in Pensacola, Florida before joining her command in January 2001.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she said with a chuckle as she described her decision to enlist.

Fast forward to September 11, when the USS Kennedy was leaving its base harbor in Jacksonville, Florida for eight weeks of training exercises near the Virgin Islands.

Natalie could still see the Jacksonville shoreline when it happened.

“It’s just going like wildfire through the ship that one of the towers has been hit,” she recalled. “We’re all huddled around this little tiny TV, and we all sat there and watched the second tower get hit, in real time.”

The USS Kennedy turned north. The fighter jets of the squadron she was a member of, the VFA-131 Wildcats, hadn’t even made it to the aircraft carrier yet, and started launching from Virginia Beach. Their mission was to assist in patrolling the skies over the nation’s capital and New York City, according to military records.

“September 11, 2001 had the WILDCATS underway onboard USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV67). Within hours of the terrorist attacks, armed WILDCAT Hornets were conducting air patrols over the nation’s Capitol and New York City from GEORGE WASHINGTON in support of OPERATION NOBLE EAGLE,” public records on the official Navy website read.

For weeks, the USS Kennedy sat in the waters off the east coast supporting the F-18s on their patrols. For the ship’s crew, their job was to keep the flight schedules on track and assist the aircraft. And while the nation reeled and readjusted to a new normal, Natalie and most of her fellow sailors on board were still in the dark.

“Most of your communication was through your standard snail mail,” she explained. “Through letters and packages and stuff like that; that’s how you found out about stuff.” They sometimes had access to news broadcasts, but much of the time, the TVs were set to show the flight deck so that the crews could track their aircraft. Most of the crew didn’t even know where off the east coast they were floating; that information was reserved for officers and navigators, she said.

“When we came back, it was a different world than what we had left,” she recalled. She described the new procedures just to get back on her military base; before the USS Kennedy had embarked, it had taken minutes—now it took more than an hour of security checks to get through the gate.

From February to August of 2002, she deployed with the squadron to the North Arabian Sea as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the official designation of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. Her role as an AT (aviation electronics technician) meant she was responsible for making sure systems on the jets were working properly, including those that released the weapons.

During their deployment, the planes Natalie helped service would drop 64,000 pounds of ordnance over Taliban and al Queda targets in Afghanistan, supporting American and coalition forces on the ground. Her squadron, the Wildcats, also won the battle efficiency “E” ribbon, a coveted award.

"I loved the job that I was doing," she said. "I loved working on the F-18s, I loved working on the electrical systems...they're very key parts to the aircraft, and the pilot completing his mission."

Natalie went on to reenlist and deploy again as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where she ranked up to a senior role and took on jobs that included troubleshooting the systems she supported. She left the Navy in 2008, and now lives with her husband in Weston, who is a Wausau native and active duty Army recruiter.

Now 18 years after the day that changed everything, what Natalie feels most is sadness over a divided country.

“The way the country united on September 12 as Americans—I mean, that was just so powerful, and we weren’t gonna take it. We weren’t gonna just sit there and let people come in and harm us and our country, and what we stand for.”