Americans over the age of 25 or so recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when the first, loosely reported accounts of September 11, 2001 began circulating. As details firmed up and the horrifying images of the terror attack were broadcasted – along with the heroic actions of NYC and U.S. Military first responders – life and time both seemed to stop.

As most Americans watched their television screens in disbelief from afar, thousands of others were right there at Ground Zero. In the moments, days, and weeks following the attacks, these brave and selfless first responders fought the chaos in any way they could, doing anything and everything in their power to attenuate the pain, suffering, and heartbreak associated with what would become the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives and physical injuries to some 6,000 more.

William (Bill) Hayes is one of those people. His 31 years in the U.S. Military and 24 years as a FDNY firefighter represent a remarkable commitment and life of service to our nation.

Hayes was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey as the son of a FDNY firefighter. Following graduation from high school, he enlisted in the United States Navy in April of 1980 at the age of 17. While assigned to VS-37 (S3 Anti-Submarine Squadron) at the Naval Air Station in North Island, California, he made a WESTPAC Cruise onboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). Upon his honorable discharged from active duty, he immediately enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves at the Naval Air Station in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, where he was assigned to VR-52 (C9 Airlift Squadron).

In January of 1986, Hayes was appointed to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and briefly served as a New York City Police Officer until July 1987, when he was appointed to the New York City Fire Department. As a member of the FDNY, Hayes would participate in countless missions to preserve the lives and livelihoods of New York City residents, including search and rescue operations during and after both World Trade Center attacks on February 26, 1993, and September 11, 2001.

Upon his Honorable Discharge from the Naval Reserves in 1990, Hayes enlisted in the New York Air National Guard and was assigned as a Traditional Guardsman to the 105th Air Lift Wing (C5 Squadron) at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburg, New York. On October 19, 2001, he was ordered to active duty in support of Operation Noble Eagle and deployed back to the World Trade Center in New York City. On November 1, 2006, he was ordered to active duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 105th Air Lift Wing. In 2007, Hayes was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. On April 30, 2012, he completed his active duty tour and returned to work at the FDNY.

After sustaining a severe back injury and contracting cancer while serving on both active military duty and as a firefighter, Hayes retired from the FDNY in May of 2011 after 24 years of service. In December, 2011, he retired from the New York Air National Guard as a Senior Master Sergeant (E8) with 31 years of military service.

In the years since his retirement, Bill Hayes has beaten his cancer, and his service has not ceased. He has volunteered with numerous Veterans nonprofit organization at both the local and national levels, including Project Healing Waters and the VFW, among others. “We started a VFW post in the FDNY in 2005. I’ve been an active member since its inception and a Commander for the past six years,” Hayes says. “It’s a very special community. Almost 1000 members of the FDNY have been activated and deployed in the U.S. Military. We’ve lost 47 of them; four since 9/11. We fight on all fronts for Veteran’s benefits and do whatever we can to provide support and healing for our military families.”

Like most U.S. Veterans and first responders, Hayes never set out to be a hero or receive any special recognition. “I was just 17 years old when I enlisted, so my father had to co-sign me. It was during the Iranian hostage crisis,” Hayes recalls. “I took the test for the Fire Department when I was in the Navy. My father was a New York firefighter and I just always wanted to be part of something that helped people. Service of others and to our country is my whole life, and that’s why I just kept re-enlisting in the reserves. Besides being a father, being able to serve in the military, as a police officer, and a as a firefighter is what I’m most proud of.”

The Operation Outdoor Freedom Foundation is dedicated to enhancing the lives of our U.S. Military Veterans. Its varied and wide-reaching initiatives and partnerships include Take a Vet Fishing, The Sparta Project, the Yontz Valor Foundation, Stellate Ganglion Block Treatment, TRP Therapy, and the Operation Outdoor Freedom Presented by Great Clips television show, which documents the lives of our American Heroes through their own voices.

“Bill Hayes is an incredible individual who has selflessly served our country in multiple capacities throughout his life, and his meaningful efforts are still ongoing,” says Operation Outdoor Freedom Foundation co-founder, Jay Garstecki. “The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is going to be a challenging day for Bill and people like him who were there amidst the horrors at Ground Zero, digging through the rubble with their bare hands. We’re humbled to be able to offer rise to Bill’s voice and story in a special episode of our TV show, which will air in the spring of 2022.”

Hayes will be busy on and around September 11 this year, honoring and remembering his fallen brothers and sisters from 9/11 at a variety of memorial services and other gatherings. “FDNY has a memorial that’s been in Manhattan for some 200 years,” Hayes says. “I will be there on September 11th this year, just as I have been in past years, with over 5,000 other firefighters from New York and around the country. My daughter will be there with me. She was only 9 years old in 2001 and was removed from school after the attacks happened, because neither she nor her school knew if I was alive or dead. We’ll have appropriate moments of silence at all of the historical times when numbers of Americans lost their lives. We’ll read the 343 names of the New York firefighters who died and take time to remember each of them individually. People are calling this an anniversary, but it’s not a celebration. It’s going to be a very difficult day.”

Join the nation in hearing Bill Hayes’ story when this special 9/11 edition of Operation Outdoor Freedom airs next spring. Check local listings for stations and times.