DECATUR — From the cockpit of Air Force One, Col. (ret.) Mark Tillman saw America at its best.
This was especially true when the world appeared at its worst in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tillman, the 12th presidential pilot from 2001 to 2009, was in Florida with President George W. Bush when news of the attacks came.
As the keynote speaker Thursday night at the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, Tillman shared stories of transporting the president that fateful September day, the pride he felt when they went to Ground Zero in New York City, and details of a secret mission he organized to get the president into Iraq undetected to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the troops.
“USA! USA! After Sept. 11, it didn’t matter where we went,” Tillman said. “Crowds with thousands of people, didn’t matter whether you were Democrat, Republican, what color, ethnicity, anything — we all came together. You may remember those days.”
Tillman also used the opportunity to express his deep support for the military and all they do keep this country safe.
“That’s what it’s about, " he said. "There’s people all over this world that you don’t know exist who are doing the job day in, day out, and a good president — President Trump, President Bush, all the presidents, President Clinton, H.W. Bush — everybody does the same thing. They take care of their military.”
He ended his talk by encouraging those in attendance to cheer “USA, USA” like those show in video clips in the aftermath of the 9/11, which they did in loud fashion.
The Thanksgiving visit, during which Bush served dinner to the troops, was especially challenging because it had to be kept top-secret, he said.
“I was the only guy that knew about this for 30 days,” Tillman reflected. “I was scared to death I was going to mess it up. My family didn’t even know I was leaving.”
His last trip was taking Bush to Texas on inauguration day 2009.
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The annual meeting was held at a fitting location, the hangar of Gaitros Aviation on the east side of the Decatur Airport. Outside a national Guard helicopter was conducting night training.
“That's the sound of freedom,” Tillman said, not bothered by the noise from the helicopter as it threatened to interrupt his presentation.
Julie Lamb used the question and answer period at the end of the speech to thank Tillman for his service.
“He served our country well,” she said after the gathering. “He told an inspiring story and it makes me feel great to listen to that as an American. And I wish more people were less partisan and felt that way.”
Among those in the crowd was Greg Bandelow Sr. of Mount Zion, who was wearing a shirt with “President of the United State Air Force One.”
His son, Greg Bandelow Jr., was a flight chief for the aircraft under Tillman.
Bandelow Sr. was in the plane when it was moved into a hangar, giving him the distinction of telling people he "rode" in Air Force One.
Chamber President Mirinda Rothrock described Thursday's gathering as the best annual meeting she's attended.
She said Tillman's message of working together and “Zero Fail Mission” reflect the goal of the Chamber as it works to assist businesses of all sizes to thrive.
She described the past year as very successful, noting numerous events that spotlighted the success and contributions of local businesses. Rothrock was especially proud of the advocacy efforts undertaken by the Chamber and the united front that has been developed that will lead the community into the future.