Reflecting on 9-11
Recent ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, resurrected memories of a terrible day that resulted in a course change for our Nation. I want to offer the perspective of one who was at the Pentagon on that unforgettable day.
Like so many others, the result of those attacks charted an unpredictable path that led me to serve two tours in Afghanistan and a tour with Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Cuba.
Each has their own memories of that day that will be forever seared in their memories. At that time, I was working as an Executive Assistant to Vice Director of Joint Staff at the Pentagon.
As with most, I remember the day starting as a beautiful September morning. I can still remember looking at a spectacular sunrise over the Capital that morning. The last thought on my mind was of anything remotely resembling the tragedy that would soon unfold.
As it was for many others, I first learned of the events from the news reports. No one in our office could understand how an airplane struck one of the World Trade Center towers on such a clear morning. Surely it had to be a mechanical issue. Within a matter of minutes, we received a call from the National Military Command Center informing us that a number of hijackings were being reported. At that point, no one had put the pieces together. However, as soon as the second tower was hit, we realized this was a deliberate attack—we were at war.
I remember calling my wife, Jenice, asking her to make an attempt to contact our friend who worked within the World Trade Center complex. Multiple phone calls were exchanged as we attempted to determine his status. Shortly after the second tower was hit, I heard a loud boom. Since the Pentagon was undergoing a major renovation, I associated the sound with the large construction equipment. However, within a minute, there was commotion in the hallways immediately followed by alarms. Evacuation notices were announced. The hallways were filled with yelling and the commands from individuals issuing instructions. Soon the smell of smoke trickled into the hallways on my side of the building. We were uncertain of what exactly happened; however, we continued to work on the task at hand of piecing together information in an effort to keep the Director of the Joint Staff informed.
Again, I called Jenice to let her know I was okay and asked her to contact our daughters. Since every television station was reporting on the attacks, I wanted to belie any concerns. Later, we received a warning that a second airplane was inbound to the Washington, DC area. The senior officer in the office directed the administrative staff to evacuate. As this was taking place, we were ordered to prepare to move to the Pentagon’s alternate command post as Department of Defense leaders were concerned the fire on the west side of the building would spread to the various communications hubs impacting the ability to effectively command and control.
Soon, my boss, Major General Hawkins, along with myself and two computer technicians were on our way to the alternate command post.
One of the most vivid memories of that day was the phone call to Jenice informing her I was leaving and that I had no idea when I would return home. As this was taking place, I was still unaware of the extent of damage to the building. It was not until I arrived at the alternate command post and saw video of the crash site did I realize the extent of damage that was inflicted on the building. Seeing those pictures, I was filled with a tremendous sense of sadness as I wondered how many Department of Defense colleagues perished in the attack—a moment of great shock and disbelief.
Eventually, the fire at the Pentagon was contained, which led to the decision to recall the personnel that were sent to the alternate command post. Finally, we drove back to the Pentagon. Driving down the George Washington Parkway, I could see an orange glare in the sky miles before arriving at the Pentagon.
Eventually, I arrived home late that night to many hugs and tears, all thankful that we were at home safely together. Just knowing that many Americans would not be walking through the front door of their homes was profoundly heart wrenching. The incredible loss of life our nation suffered that day was staggering. Kindness and support was extended to my family. Jenice received dozens of phone calls from family and friends checking on us. I am forever grateful for those phone calls, the words of encouragement, and the prayers all of which made me even more grateful that I was safe.
The next morning, September 12, I arrived back at the Pentagon at 5:00 a.m. Security was tight. It was at a level I never before witnessed at the building. The smell of smoke filled the air; however, everyone focused on the task at hand—getting the building up and running and preparing for what lay ahead. The days following the attack were long and stressful. Plans were made to deal with al-Qaida and the Taliban while we all wondered if there would be another attack.
As most recall, within a month, the issue of anthrax presented a new concern for everyone at the Pentagon and throughout the Federal government. Reflecting on the tragic events of that day, I’m not sure at that time I realized just how much the events of 9-11 would impact me, my family, and the nation.
The decade that followed led to two deployments to Afghanistan as well as a deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as part of the Joint Task Force that oversees detainee operations—places and circumstance that I never imagined. Having just returned from Afghanistan, I am reminded that we as a nation can never go back to the way it was on September 10. Security is something that must be thought of every day. The events of that day demonstrate that our nation is no longer safe from those who despise America.
Indeed, 9-11 reminds us that the world possesses various groups of evil people who have no issue with the butchering of innocent lives. Indeed, this attitude still exists today; therefore, our nation must remain vigilant. Maybe the greatest lesson learned from that awful day is the importance of life. Almost three thousand people went to work that morning never to return. Fear, uncertainty, confusion, anger and anxiousness were emotions that engulfed me on that day; however, sadness is the most vivid feeling I can recall. In the days that followed, a genuine sense of concern for one another developed. When someone asked how you were doing, there was a true sense of sincerity in the question. Sadly, as time moved further away from the events of 9-11, we lost that sense of unity and concern for our neighbors. The grief and sadness of this tragedy serves as a reminder of just how precious life is. We need to celebrate life every day, care for one another, and remain united.