Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Pamela Boehland
It’s been almost 15 years since planes struck the World Trade Center, creating chaos in New York and sending a shockwave down the country that impacted Coast Guard Reservist Will Gillis and his family.
Gillis was serving as a port security specialist at Port Security Unit 305 in Fort Eustace, Virginia, when 9/11 happened. As a prior service Marine, Gillis spent eight years in the Corps’ reserve component, with stints of active duty, but never deployed. Then in 2001, with less than two years in the Coast Guard Reserve, and a few hours’ notice, Gillis was saying goodbye to his four children to respond to the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
“The first time I ever saw the Statue of Liberty, we were guarding it from terrorists,” said Gillis, his southern accent hitching with emotion.
Gillis said he will never forget the ghastly look on peoples’ faces. He said the first responders looked like robots, just trying to get things done but still in shock from what had happened.
His job was to patrol New York Harbor as a coxswain and guard the emergency operation center and the Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Additionally, he and his crew worked long days, 12-plus hours, ferrying supplies and first responders to lower Manhattan. He slept in a large, mixed gender canvas tent, similar to those seen on the show MASH, with about a dozen other people. His tent and about 15 other were set up on an open field on Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.
“We took line, and built a wall with blankets to create some privacy,” said Gillis.
There was no air conditioning to ward off the last of September’s summer heat and humidity, and then he had to endure the chill of early winter until his unit was demobilized at the end of November.
But he was glad he was there. He said he knew that the increased military presence provided a sense of relief to the people of New York.
“One person came up to me and asked if the gun on the front of the boat could take down a plane if needed, I told him, ‘Yes sir, it can,’ and he said, ‘good,’” said Gillis.
Though he was proud to serve, his thoughts were back home in North Carolina. His wife, DeeDee, was on vacation in Europe at the time of the attack. She said she remembers seeing it on TV, and spent hours trying to connect with her husband on the phone. When she finally did, he told her he had been recalled.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know when I’ll be back but the kids have money,’” said DeeDee.
He had to leave his four children, then ranging in age from 13-17, to take care of themselves until DeeDee could get home. He tasked his 17-year-old daughter with getting everyone to school and gave his other daughter, nearly 15, money for lunches.
“I threatened the boys with their life,” Gillis said in a serious tone. “If they didn’t listen to their sisters, I would kill them.”
It was the first of several deployments Gillis would be called upon to serve following 9/11. From January to July of 2002 he went with the PSU to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then Rota, Spain, for Operation Iraqi Freedom, from February to June of 2003.
“It was tough,” said Gillis, “There was a lot of things I ended up missing. When we were in New York, my daughter turned 15. We had this big day planned. I was going to take her out of school and just make it a special day. And we never got to do it, boy I hated that. It was the first thing I had ever missed.”
DeeDee remembers those deployments being tough on her as well. She said it just felt like something was missing, but she knew her husband was passionate about being in the military.
“When he signed up for the Coast Guard, he told me that this was more than one weekend a month, two weeks a year, but I said this who you are, this is what you love, go for it,” said DeeDee.
Then she recalled the struggles of raising four children with her husband gone, laughed and said, “I didn’t really mean that, did I?”
Gillis is now a master chief petty officer at the PSU and the unit’s gold badge. He is set to retire on Nov. 19 after 25 years of service. He said looking back at his career, despite the hardships, it brings him a lot of joy. He said it was great to watch the men and women he led grow into strong leaders themselves.
DeeDee said that ever since he made chief, he eats, sleeps and breaths Coast Guard, and serves, like he promised, more than just the one weekend a month. However, she said, she is proud of him and supports him 100 percent.
“I never felt like I took a backseat to the Coast Guard,” said DeeDee. “I always felt like his partner.”
Sept. 11 had a big impact on Gillis and his family. Their sacrifice and support gave him the ability to serve. Looking back he remembers it with a mix of feelings.
He said, “I hurt as much today as I did then when I think of that morning kissing my baby girl good-bye, but the hurt is replaced with pride in how they behaved and acted, so I could do the work I needed to perform for our fellow citizens and country.”