Airman finds purpose in tragic events of 9/11

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

Young Dylan Lecce stared out the window of a Manhattan classroom and watched his city burn.  

A native of the Bowery in New York, Lecce, stared in wide-eyed wonder as his 8-year-old mind tried to process the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that unfolded before him. The confusion of that event, ironically, set Lecce’s life on a trajectory that brought him to Barksdale Air Force Base, as a Weapons System Officer student in the Formal Training Unit here.

A Day Like Any Other

Lecce, now a captain assigned to the 11th Bomb Squadron, recalled that Sept. 11, 2001 started like any other day. His mother took him and his brother to school. It was Election Day in New York and people streamed into the city to vote.

Then things changed.

“We honestly didn’t know what was happening when Tower 1 (the South Tower) was hit, we thought it was just a bad accident and the firefighters would take care of it,” Lecce said, a hint of a New York accent slipping over his words.

Even Lecce’s third-grade teacher seemed not to grasp the situation, gathering the children in a semi-circle for a lesson, her back to a window from which the students could see the South Tower fire rage, a giant smokestack that chugged black fumes into the blue Manhattan sky.  

He continued to look past his teacher, mesmerized by the burning building, when the seminal moment occurred that made Lecce, and everyone else, realize something bigger was happening.

“I saw Tower 2 basically explode,” he said. “That was United 175 hitting the building.”

Lecce’s teacher quickly closed the blinds, but the image was burned into his memory. It was one of many that would form his conscience and shape him into the person he is today.

The ensuing hours were chaotic. New York locked down as parents scrambled on foot to pick up children from school.  Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars raced up and down the Bowery in front of Lecce’s home.

Lecce’s father was stuck in upstate New York on a business trip, unable to make it home or even communicate through the jammed phone lines. His mother did her best to shield him from the ongoing events. Even so, Lecce’s 8-year-old mind processed that at least one of the towers had fallen.

Ever the optimist, he turned to his older brother.

“At least one of the towers is standing,” he said to his sibling, hope ringing in his voice.  

That hope was dashed by his brother’s response.

“No,” his older brother said flatly, staring at Lecce with sad eyes. “It’s not.”

From chaos, clarity

Over the next few days, Lecce watched as his normally bustling Bowery neighborhood turned eerily quiet. Exterior building walls were plastered with photographs, people searching for loved ones who had gone missing in the attack.

“I still didn’t understand everything that was going on; it was hard to process at that age,” he said. “Our teacher had us write how we felt, and I remember being very angry and sad at the same time.”

Lecce found solace in the acts of kindness he saw between his fellow New Yorkers and gained inspiration from two uncles, one a New York fire chief and the other an Air Force pilot.

He remembered watching as his uncle, the fire chief, constantly performed one of two grim duties; going into the rubble to recover bodies and attending funerals of his fellow firefighters.

And he remembers hearing his parents talk about his other uncle in the Air Force, deploying to Afghanistan, part of the first wave of U.S. troops in the War on Terror.

As the years passed, Lecce began to untangle the knot of emotions that had confused and paralyzed him, and by the age of 17, he had made up his mind to do something about it. He would join the military. The idea of coupling his interest in flying with the ability to help future generations avoid the trauma inflicted upon New York and the United States seemed to make perfect sense.

“There are some really unsavory characters out there and something needs to be done about that,” said Lecce flatly, the very words seemed to chase his usual, easy-going smile away.

That plan has moved Lecce from the city that he loves to the cockpit of a B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale Air Force Base, learning how to become a Weapons Systems Officer as a student in attendance at the B-52 FTU.

For Lecce, flying and serving is more of a mission than a goal or ambition. He believes his service in the Air Force honors the brave first responders who gave their lives on Sept. 11.

“I think about them every time I fly because, in the military, we know the dangers we have to face,” he said. “Those firefighters didn’t know they would have to climb into a 1,500-foot burning building that day; they didn’t ask for that, but they did it anyway.”

 As he prepares to graduate from the B-52 FTU and enter the operational Air Force, Lecce is not certain what the future holds. He remains uncertain about whether he will make a career of serving his country or if he will one day return to his beloved New York. Whatever the path, he will almost certainly be driven by the memory of the men and women who fought to save both.