As I reflect on the events that took place on that horrible day 20 years ago on Sept. 11, four points come to mind: For me, it was personal; the Pentagon continued to function; those who perished weren’t nameless/faceless people; and this crucible helped unite our nation.
For me, the attack was personal. It was personal as a U.S. citizen, a uniformed military officer and a person who happened to be working in the Pentagon that day. What resonates most with me is that the terrorists struck the defense headquarters of the world’s most powerful nation.
Most Americans know exactly where they were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. They know what they were doing and whom they were with. On that disastrous morning, I was in the Pentagon. I was serving as the executive assistant to one of the Army staff’s top six senior executives and was in the office at 5:30 a.m. After our usual series of morning updates, the first hijacked aircraft struck the North World Trade Tower at 8:46 a.m. in New York City. At 9:03 a.m., the second hijacked aircraft struck the South World Trade Tower. At 9:30 a.m., a colleague and I were watching a news broadcast as CNN televised a hijacked aircraft being flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He commented that we were lucky that had not happened in the Pentagon, an office building with more than 27,000 workers and 40,000 commuters passing through each day on buses and the subway system. A few minutes after he made that comment, we heard a loud explosion and felt this huge building shake. Our initial thought was that a truck bomb had been detonated under or close to the Pentagon. We found out an hour later that a hijacked aircraft had been flown into the southwest side of the Pentagon.
The Pentagon continued to function
With its physical structure heavily damaged, the Pentagon continued to function in performing the policy-making, force development and other strategic tasks. More than 25% of my directorate’s office space was on fire or sustained water and smoke damage. Our first concern was to account for the directorate’s staff of more than 400 people. That task would prove very challenging, since people scattered in many directions after the attack. Some helped with the rescue efforts, others moved into different work spaces and some went home to be with their families. When the 100% accountability process was completed after midnight, we discovered that six of our staff members were hospitalized and two were missing. One of the missing was an Army officer, married and a father of two. The other was a single-parent sergeant who worked in that same office. Six days later, the remains of the two missing were found, and positive identification was made.
Not nameless, faceless people
A general made the official next-of-kin notification to the officer’s spouse. I was asked to notify the sergeant’s next-of-kin of her death. By Army policy at that time, the official next-of-kin of the single parent sergeant was her 6-year-old daughter. Accompanied by an Army chaplain and a sergeant who knew and worked with the deceased sergeant, I made this notification at the home of the 6-year-old’s care provider. That notification by far was the most difficult task I’ve done in my entire life, physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. What bothered me most was that I don’t feel the daughter, at her young age, really understood what we were telling her — that her mom was never coming home.
In addition to the two from my directorate who were killed on 9/11, I knew an Army major, who was married to an Army captain, who was killed. They had two young sons.
Those 2,977 killed on 9/11, specifically those 184 who perished at the Pentagon, were not nameless, faceless people. They were parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, classmates and neighbors from all over the world.
A crucible unites
If there is a positive that resulted from this national crucible, it united our nation. A short time after the Pentagon attack, clergy from all faiths descended on the Pentagon to perform last rites and to console those affected. First responders from across the national capital region came to the Pentagon to help with the effort. Many people who had vastly divergent views came together for a common cause.
In the days, weeks and months that followed that day, our nation came together to demonstrate to the entire world that we collectively have a limitless capacity to be resilient. The patriotism that was shown by flags being flown on cars, homes and office buildings, and the high number of men and women who stepped up to join our armed forces, was phenomenal.
On Sept. 11, if you have one, fly your flag proudly and take a small amount of your time to have a moment of silence for those 2,977 Americans who lost their lives 20 years ago, and for their loved ones. I thank you in advance for doing so.
Byron S. Bagby is a retired Army Major General and a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He serves on the board of trustees for William Woods University and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton.