NEVER FORGET Remembering 9/11 is my inaugural blog post. It deals with a somber topic— the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
These terrible events will live forever in me. Every year, the anniversary of the tragedies in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, brings a flood of emotions and memories. Within hours of the attacks, I deployed to the Pentagon to support the efforts post attack. During my three tours in Washington, I’d spent hundreds of hours working in the Pentagon and even more time glancing out at it from my office across Shirley Highway/I-395 in Crystal City.
I arrived at the Pentagon after darkness had fallen. The image of blazing fires lighting up the sky has stuck with me, as have the distinctive smells of burning building materials and the stench of murder. My instant reaction was anger—at the evil men who slammed a passenger jet into America’s military headquarters. It was the same feeling I’d experienced watching airliners tear into the World Trade Centers but intensified by seeing their carnage firsthand. When the fires were brought under control, brave men and women searched for victims and remains. It was dangerous work. At the point of attack, the walls and floors of the Pentagon were susceptible to collapse at any moment despite engineers’ efforts to shore them up. More than once, claxon sirens pierced the air, warning everyone to flee to safety. Either smoldering fires were reawakening, or the structure was in danger of collapsing. Eventually, recovery efforts proceeded in earnest, and mountains of debris were sifted for evidence.
Over time, my difficult memories have given way to more positive ones. I recall the brave first responders from local, state, and federal fire, emergency service, and law enforcement agencies from all across America exhausting themselves to perform their responsibilities. For us, it was our duty to be there. Perhaps the most startling discovery was that thousands and I mean thousands, of our fellow citizens showed up to assist in the aftermath. These heroes, from every walk of life, came at their own expense to support us. So many people stepped up that officials could not accommodate them all. They worked behind the scenes ensuring the workers were hydrated and fed, had places to rest their heads during breaks, and handled untold other logistical issues. The remarkable men and women who performed these essential tasks are rarely acknowledged, but their efforts were critical to the process. I can’t even begin to tick off the diverse backgrounds and geographic areas represented.
I have an example of the sacrifices made by ordinary citizens to support their country. I met a couple who’d driven virtually nonstop from Alaska in their RV only to be denied the opportunity to volunteer because of the sheer number of people who had come forward. Astounding! I mentioned their extraordinary efforts to a site coordinator with a sympathetic ear, and she worked them into a volunteer group. Patriots by the thousands arrived in New York City and Shanksville and repeated the tasks in those cities.
The terrible blow we suffered that day at the hands of evil men was staggering. My most significant takeaway from the terror strikes was a largely unspoken but firmly held belief. We were all Americans, and nothing could stop us from showing the world that we would defend freedom and liberty, no matter the cost. And while the American spirit had taken a hit, it was already rising from the ashes.
To this day, I have one photograph from my time at the site. It is of soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment and firefighters from Arlington County, Virginia. They unfurled a gigantic American flag from the rooftop and draped it over the side of the Pentagon. Then, as the flag fluttered in a gentle breeze, they snapped to attention and saluted. There the flag remained every day and was illuminated by floodlights at night. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t walk past this picture; it is my reminder that I must never forget.
Never forget the victims of 9/11. Never forget the families and friends who lost loved ones. Never forget the sacrifices of first responders, especially those whose exposure to hazardous debris ruined their health—it just took years for the terrorist attacks to claim their lives. The attacks motivated thousands more to serve their country in uniform. Never forget their sacrifices. My greatest fear is that as each year passes, many Americans have forgotten or will forget what happened on September 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 of our innocent citizens had their lives taken by evil. The hate for America, and each of us because of who we are, lives on.
I struggle to find the words to convey to others what it is like to be an American and to describe the bond that connects us—you know it, feel it, and know when it’s missing. I sincerely hope all of us keep in mind that we are blessed to live in the greatest country the world has ever seen, and we should not let partisan politics drive us apart as a nation. Instead, we must pull together, as all did on 9/11. As one, the American spirit will triumph.