Like so many other people, I was at work when word of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy came. At my newsroom desk I watched television reports and monitored other news from the Associated Press and other sources on the internet.
Former Congressman Jack Kingston and members of his staff shared information not widely available. This included photos of World Trade Center workers jumping to the deaths rather than face the flames that raged before the towers’ collapse.
While I felt the same rush of emotions as most Americans—shock, grief, anger—I had no personal ties to the events of 9/11. I knew no one in the twin towers, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93. I had visited the Pentagon only once, for a brief ceremony, and I had certainly never been to New York City. While realizing that the world would never be the same after 9/11, I felt a certain distance from the specific events and sites involved. That would soon change.
By November I found myself in an Army Humvee with heavily armed soldiers patrolling areas of Washington, D.C., and the security zone surrounding the damaged Pentagon. Fort Stewart’s Public Affairs Office—on its own initiative—had arranged for me to embed with elements of the 3rd Infantry Division guarding the Pentagon as part of Operation Noble Eagle during those tense times.
I rode up to Washington with a handful of MPs who were going to replace others who would be rotating back to Fort Stewart. Workspace and sleeping quarters were in unoccupied buildings at Fort Meyer scheduled for demolition.
Although the world was flooded with descriptions, photos and videos of the 9/11 sites, seeing the Pentagon with my own eyes made a difference. The Pentagon is a sturdy building and had been reinforced following the Oklahoma City bombing, but the damage was severe.
The hijacked Boeing 757 was carrying 10,000 gallons of jet fuel when it hit the Pentagon at 345 mph. All on board American Airlines Flight 77 were killed as were 125 Pentagon workers. The famously five-sided Pentagon also has five rings of offices wrapping around an inner courtyard. The hijacked airliner struck the west side and penetrated the three outer rings.
As a reporter I’ve seen lots of fires, demolitions, explosions and so on, but nothing prepared me for the impact of seeing that huge blackened wound in our country’s top military headquarters. Horrible as it was, I am glad to have seen it.
Security, of course, was extreme and it was only with special permission and an escort that I was allowed close to the building. The Pentagon was ringed with heavily armed military and civilian guards and soldiers and civilians could be seen on the roof. Roving patrols, including 3rd ID MPs, blanketed the D.C. area and the Pentagon across the river.
My embed left me with several impressions from my own little glance at the earth-shaking events of 2001:
Americans are resilient. Despite the horror, soldiers and civilians after 9/11 were coming together, rebuilding and restoring.
We can be proud of our soldiers. Those November days I spent with the Fort Stewart MPs reinforced my opinion of our soldiers. They are hard-working, dedicated and bright.
Probably more than the rest of us can realize, soldiers value links with home, family, buddies and community. The Fort Stewart MPs were in D.C. for a relatively brief tour—just a few weeks. And they were in the continental United States, with access to phones, internet and good mail service. But this did not seem to reduce their appreciation of any contact with home. One example: a very large bulletin board in the Fort Myer barracks building was completely covered with letters, drawings, photos and other materials from home. An elementary school student had written an “any soldier” note:
Thank you for keeping us safe.