Third in a series

Todd Libby was a cable guy hooking up a customer’s service at an apartment in Back Bay Towers in Portland on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Literally, as I was connecting the (coaxial cable) the second plane was about 30 seconds away from hitting the tower,” Libby said. “I sat down on the edge of the ottoman in this gentleman’s house. He came in, not really knowing what was going on, and we just looked at the TV. We just sat there for more than hour not saying anything.”

Libby, who is now 46 and lives in Portland, said he did not know the man at all, but there they sat. “Our mouths are gaped and this is happening,” Libby said. “After about an hour, I came to my senses and said, ‘Hey, I gotta go.'”

That morning would change the course of  Libby’s life.

“I knew something was going to come of it,” he said.

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He was a U.S. Army reservist at the time who had served as an active duty military police officer. The attacks would mean a return to active duty and set him on a career that continues today. He served overseas, eventually became a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and now is the retention manager for the National Guard in Maine.

Along the way, he also became a third-generation Portland firefighter, a job he will return to when his current assignment with the Guard is complete.

“And it didn’t really dawn on me that I wanted to do it until after 9/11,” he said of becoming a firefighter and following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. “They ended up having a special graduation from the fire academy, early, so I could go on my first deployment.”

Soon after the planes crashed into the towers, Libby received word he should prepare to be called up again. He understood his life was going to shift gears dramatically, but didn’t expect it would be a 20-year journey.  “I knew, as a military police, we would figure pretty heavily on the ground, so I prepared myself, I think,” he said.

Just a month earlier Libby had exchanged vows with his high school sweetheart. He and his wife, Emily, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary last month. The couple have two daughters Charlotte, 15, and Ruby, 11.

While his wife, a public school teacher, has been supportive of his decision to serve, things haven’t always been easy. Returning soldiers take time to transition back to family life, and family members also need to transition back to having another person involved in their lives, Libby said.

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During his last deployment to Afghanistan, he would stay in touch with his girls using WhatsApp and Facetime, a luxury his father, a Vietnam veteran, didn’t have.

One of Libby’s most visceral memories of 9/11 is one many Mainers have of that day – the weather and the sky. “It was the most strikingly clear day,” he said. “The most beautiful day, I can ever remember and anytime there’s a day like that, it just really comes to mind.”

One year later, nearly to the date, he would become a firefighter. He would end up first in the Iraq war in 2002, where he spent 21 months assigned to the military police “kicking in doors.” In 2017, he would go to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he served on a NATO team protecting the complex around the American Embassy.

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the massive evacuation of people from Kabul have also created moments of pause.

“It’s difficult to watch,” Libby said. He said a recent text message from a buddy he served with in Afghanistan took him off guard. The friend asked how he was doing. Libby wasn’t sure what he meant at first – then it dawned on him and he realized the impact it was having.

“It was kind of the first time I let my shoulders down and unclenched my jaw and stuff like that,”  he said.

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Libby said he’s lost two friends he served with in Afghanistan to suicide and has made a point of now reaching out to others just to see how they are doing. So they know someone is thinking of them and they aren’t alone.

While soldiers have shared experiences they are all individuals and all process things in different ways, Libby said.

It’s not always easy, he said, especially for those not still serving. They don’t have the daily camaraderie, the ability to swap stories, to talk. “However you process it, is how you process it,” Libby said.

But, despite the recent events and the decades of sacrifices, he said he doesn’t regret being a part of the military or serving in the wars that followed 9/11. Libby said he will continue with the Guard when his current duty assignment ends next April.

“To be all honest with you, I have more anxiety about taking this off,” he said tugging lightly at his uniform shirt. “This is more of an identity for me right now and it’s tough for me to think about not being a soldier.”

Read Sunday’s profile: Ticket agent struggles with guilt, trauma over two decades

Read Monday’s profile: Watching attacks in high school classroom sparked social activism

Coming Wednesday: Sister of man aboard hijacked plane

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