Please pause a moment to remember where you were when you heard, what you were doing, what you were thinking, what they died for, the pain, the sadness of that day.
Does it seem like nine years ago?
Or an instant?
I have a colleague who thinks we should replace the phrase “Never Forget” with a different phrase:
I have another colleague who shared his memory of that day.
This does a little to explain what I experienced during the 911 attack and the weeks and months after. I was in a special and unique position to experience the attack firsthand and then be assigned to … national security efforts immediately after and as we went to war in Afghanistan.
In my [military] career I had many close calls and experienced personnel losses, yet two traumatic events stand out where I experienced loss of life of people I knew and was close to. One, my best friend in my aviation squadron was killed as he crashed when landing on an aircraft carrier That was early in my career.
The other, 911, when seven people I had assigned to work in the … Command Center were killed in the attack. In five more minutes, I would have been among them.
I lived in an apartment on Arlington Ridge, about one mile from the Pentagon. On September 11, I had a mid-morning meeting with people who worked for me … in the Pentagon, so I decided to walk there since I had the time. It was a nice sunny and mild morning in DC.
As I was getting dressed, the television news said that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. I saw the tower and the smoke and fire on live TV. My instincts told me immediately this wasn’t an aviation accident. From the damage in the building I thought it had to be a large commercial jet, not a private small aircraft. I put my uniform on quickly, still looking forward to the walk to the Pentagon.
Halfway on the walk to the Pentagon is a Starbucks in Pentagon City. As I was waiting at the counter for coffee, the TV showed the second tower, live, in smoke and flames, exactly like the first. I knew immediately then we were under attack and this was no accident or fluke. My sense of duty overwhelmed me. As the skipper, I knew I had to get to the Pentagon quickly. Now.
As I walked across the Pentagon parking lot, I heard the roar of a low flying large jet and couldn’t believe where it was. There was no reason for it to be there in that airspace.
The airliner was flying low. It had an unstable look as its wings were rocking and its nose yawing. It kept descending, much to my wishes that it wouldn’t. The wings began clipping the tops of the light poles in the lot. I knew what was next, braced for the impact, and watched it plow right into the side of the Pentagon.
I was about 300 yards away. I felt the heat first. Then the blast. I couldn’t believe it.
For what seemed like a long time – really it was just short minutes – nothing seemed to happen except the immediate flames and smoke billowing skyward out of the building.
Slowly at first, then in volumes, people began streaming from the building. My immediate sense was to get inside the Pentagon, because where the plane hit the building was exactly where my people were in the command center. I knew very soon I wasn’t going to be able to get inside, so I started helping, directing people away to safety as they streamed out.
Many were confused and needed guidance on where to go, which was anywhere really, just away from the now hotly burning building. I kept looking for the people who worked for me …, desperately hoping they were among the safe.
I found out a day later they were all killed in the command center, where I would have been in five more minutes.
I watched the Arlington Fire Department roll up to the Pentagon in their lime green fire engines, thinking how overwhelmed they were going to be, with two engines fighting this huge inferno. I wanted to join them, help them, but I knew the best thing was to just stay out of the way. And so I did what I could, administering first aid, aiding and comforting people on the grassy area, and just doing what I could in a time where no one felt they could really do anything that was anywhere near adequate.
Meanwhile, every time a plane flew in to or took off from Reagan National Airport, many people believed it was bringing another attack. They ran each time a plane flew over. It was chaos, until all the airplanes were finally grounded.
I stayed at the Pentagon for hours, perhaps hoping I’d see my people appear alive at any moment. I must have looked exhausted because a Navy chief petty officer who I knew said “Captain, you’ve done your best, it’s really time for you to go home now and please do, sir.” I agreed as he pointed me the route out, so I walked home and realized while I was walking, I had shed my bomber jacket and uniform shirt and was in just my t-shirt; I must have used the clothes for first aid or blankets. I don’t remember it.
At home, I stayed. I called the Director … and reported in over the phone. Two days later, I was ordered to the Joint Staff to start up and direct the … Task Force.
I boarded a shuttle bus at Arlington Navy Annex to ride to the Pentagon and report in to the Joint Staff. I was in grief over the deaths of the seven people who worked for me. I had assigned them all to work there and now couldn’t help but believe I had sent them to their deaths. I got off the bus and walked past the smoking ruins and rescue crews still carrying bodies out.
At that point, I didn’t know what we, the Nation, had in store and whether our very survival was part of the stakes. We had every reason to believe more attacks were coming. It was a very vulnerable feeling, not knowing who the attackers were and how we were going to find them.
As I walked in to the Pentagon mission center, people looked fearful and without a sense of mission or reason to be there. Some knew who I was, and felt calmed that an experienced officer had been sent to lead them. That calmness spread, fortunately, for probably the big reason I was ordered there is because of my command experience and ability to lead in tough situations. People were relieved they had a leader to get them organized and functioning.
The next day, when we in the task force were definitely not yet operationally functioning, the general visited our Center and asked for a briefing on the … situation in Afghanistan.
He of course sensed it, and I told him directly that we were not yet ready to brief him like I knew he expected to be briefed. So after summing up a few things for him that I knew from the intelligence traffic, I asked him to give us another 48 hours. This was a defining moment for the task force, one of those situations where all eyes rise to the leader because no one else knows what to do. People watched their commander stand up to the general. It had a remarkable and coalescing effect on the entire group. It seemed they were then ready to accomplish anything.
The motivation and innovation of this intelligence group took hold immediately. An Army sergeant went to Borders bookstore and bought out the entire stock of the book on how the Soviets fought their war in Afghanistan. It was a great idea; we learned quickly this war in Afghanistan would be long and protracted. We were also perplexed about the caves in Afghanistan and how to figure out where in those caves the Taliban were hiding. A Marine captain had the idea of contacting the cave divers, spelunkers, so we asked several international spelunker societies and groups about their knowledge of the caves in Afghanistan.
The next week, with our … center barely in an operational status, some Congressional staffers visited and were very piercing and skeptical with their questioning concerning any foreknowledge we could have had of al Qaeda and Taliban. They began to berate some of my officers and NCOs, insisting that we all should have had knowledge of the 911 attacks. I interceded into this insulting line of questioning and stopped it, and told the staffers that any further questions would be directed to me and not to the line analysts in the center.
Out in the hall, the staffers and I had what could be called a shouting match (well, they were shouting) and finally I directed them to leave. They said I had no authority to direct them out and my response was that they were interfering with the good order and discipline of my command and I would call the master at arms if they didn’t leave immediately. They left; we never heard from them again.
A week later, a U.S. Senator who was the Chair of [a] Senate Committee, visited our center, commended the people for doing the hard work they were doing and on the way out, personally apologized to me for the actions of the staffers. Again, this was another defining moment for my people, who realized then the important work they were doing in extremely difficult and stressful circumstances….
As the weeks and months passed, our … center was part of many innovative operations, made necessary by the stakes of what 911 brought. We helped initiate many warfighting solutions … to and from the battlefield, which was very satisfying. We helped win back Afghanistan from the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, watching as the provinces fell, one by one and the U.S. established control.
Even then, my sense was that this victory was only going to be a temporary one. From the history books, I knew that Afghanistan was not going to be won. [Nine] years later, Afghanistan hasn’t been won and it has been very frustrating to watch the Taliban reestablish itself. Now, I worry that my own son will soon be in the fight.
Of the many things that stay with me from 911 and its aftermath, I will mention three. First is the loss of our people. I spent a lot of time attending funerals and memorials, commemorating these dedicated lives. I am most aware I ordered these people to work in the Pentagon, sometimes against their wishes. They went and they served, because I asked them to. As every leader knows, among the most haunting things is knowing you have sent people to give the ultimate sacrifice.
Next, is knowing what good people can do in extreme circumstances. Then, we all thought we were working inside a huge and vulnerable target that could be hit again at any moment. The pressure and stress this put on people was tremendous. I saw what good leadership, calm and confident and decisive, can do and is what my entire … career had prepared me to do. Recognizing this, the people who worked for me presented me a beautiful hand made wooden plaque, which I treasure.
Last, is the September 11 voicemail my son left when, not knowing how or where I was, he told me that he hoped I was OK and that he knew I would be and that I should call him soon. And the email my daughters sent, saying they wished they knew where I was and they would worry until they heard from me.
Those are only three things, out of many I could have mentioned. But 911 has shaped and changed what I feel about many things, including that life is valuable, vulnerable, fleeting and worth making important moments and memories with people you care about.