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Lieutenant general with local ties recalls 9/11 events at Pentagon
web 0911 Robert Caslen
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. - photo by Photo provided.

When Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. conjures memories of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America, he’s nearly overcome by vivid images of fire, rubble, injured people and fear; however, he said, he also thinks of heroics, pride and a great hope for America. Ten years ago, Caslen and his wife, Shelly, were stationed in Washington, D.C., and the lieutenant general was in his Pentagon office when the terrorists struck.

Although Caslen now is the commanding general of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., he and his wife recently spent time in Hinesville, where one son, Robert Caslen III, is a firefighter with the Hinesville Fire Department and their other son, Jeffery Caslen, is a first lieutenant assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart. During the couple’s visit to the area, they took time to reflect on the events of that fateful day.

The day began like any other, said Caslen, who recalled that he drove his newly purchased pickup truck to work. In his office, he joined a few of his staff members around a television, where they learned an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. As they watched, another plane struck the second tower and Caslen said he knew it had to be a terrorist attack.

“I told the guys I was standing with that this had to be some kind of a terrorist attack and the next target they’re going to hit will be some command control facility,” he said.

Eighteen minutes after his prediction, Caslen said, terrorists slammed another hijacked plane into the side of the Pentagon. All employees were ordered to evacuate the building and people flooded the halls, exiting as quickly as they could. Once outside, the lieutenant general made his way to the impact point. As he watched first responders treating the injured, he could not watch from the sidelines, he said.

“They weren’t going to let us back into the building. They wanted all of us to go home, but I found a way to get back in the building,” Caslen said.

Back inside the Pentagon, Caslen’s leadership instincts kicked in and he began trying to account for all of his people. After he learned his staffers were safe, he began setting up a secure command center where Pentagon leaders could communicate with the White House and President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One.

While Caslen sprang into action at the Pentagon, fear and uncertainty gripped his wife. She had been doing volunteer work at a nearby high school where their son, Jeffery, was a sophomore.

“I was aware of what had happened in New York, and then someone came and told me that the Pentagon had been hit, and the first thing I thought of was, ‘Oh my God, did they hit the side that Robert works on? Is he dead?’” Shelly Caslen said. “To make matters worse, I couldn’t get him on the phone because the lines were being flooded with calls.”

Caslen eventually was able to get through to his wife, who was relieved to learn that he was OK. Many others, however, were not as fortunate. Their loved ones were not OK.

“I knew one captain … who worked for me. He was one of my company commanders when I was a brigade commander. He was killed. He had two young boys, had a beautiful wife … it was a tough reality,” Caslen said.

Though Caslen still is plagued by disturbing images of that day, he said he also has positive memories, such as visions of firefighters — like his son, Robert — who worked to extinguish the fires at the Pentagon.

“They worked on the fire to get the fire under control. I saw them getting on the roof and I remember watching them and saying those are some pretty courageous guys going to where they needed to go to address the fire. They worked it all day, all night and they continued to work it until the next day. They did some great work,” Caslen said.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks changed our country, according to the lieutenant general. They changed the way we do our everyday business, the mission of the military, our families and everyone’s lives to some degree, he said. But with these changes, much good has transpired — most notably, the effect the attacks had on children who have grown up during the past 10 years, often referred to as the “9/11 generation.”

One of those children, Caslen’s son, Jeffery, now is a military officer on Fort Stewart. His mother remembers what he said as a young high school student after learning terrorists had struck in New York City and Washington, D.C.

 “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to West Point and then I’m going in the Army and I’m going to get those guys,’” Shelly Caslen said.

“This incredible generation that saw 9/11 take place and internalized it somehow and decided that they wanted to do something about it — these are the ones who joined the military or joined the federal service to some capacity. They’re the ones who want to stand in the gap between the evil that’s out there and our way of life and the values that we stand for. It’s a unique group of men and women,” Caslen said.

Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. currently is serving as the Commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He has been assigned to serve as the incoming Commander of Office Security of Cooperation in Iraq, where he will be responsible for training the Iraqi military to assume a peace-keeping role as U.S. forces exit the country.

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