We remember: 'Our personal reflections'
August 25, 2011
CAPT. EMILEE VENN
Ten years ago I was working on Capitol Hill in Washington as a U.S. Senate staffer. I was in D.C., Sept. 11, 2001, and was part of the mass evacuation of the U.S. Capitol complex that day.
We heard the jets go sonic overhead as they were rushing to intercept the already doomed Flight 93. Ten years later, I'm in Iraq with the 218th Medical Detachment Veterinary Services serving as the officer in charge of the International Zone Veterinary Treatment Facility in Baghdad.
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 5 JOHN M. HARRIS
On 9/11, I woke up like everyone to the shock and horror of the attacks. I was serving on an Army National Guard CAB (Combat Aviation Brigade) staff, and had just undergone major foot surgery the day before. I wanted to be able to help as soon as possible, but being on crutches, I knew I was grounded from flying for a while.
However, since I was living next to the 40th Infantry Division's headquarters, it turned out that they were in need of volunteers who could perform the role of division staff duty officer from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and being on crutches was not a disqualifier. I was able to get a ride and at least perform some needed staff duties in the days immediately following the attack.
When (I) recovered from my foot surgery, I was then able to deploy in December 2001 as a TDY augmentee to the staff of the 5th Special Forces Group/JSOTF-N in Uzbekistan. (I) was able to participate in missions over Afghanistan in support (of) our Northern Alliance allies.
Now, after having accumulated over 42 years of continuous Army service, I am most fortunate to continue serving our country as a Soldier; I am the G7 aviation officer for the U.S. Army Reserve's 91st Division (Training) at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., and I also perform duties as a UH-1 Huey instructor pilot, attached to the National Training Center Aviation Company at Fort Irwin, Calif.
I was working at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., in their IT department on Sept. 11, 2001. My office was a few blocks away from the Pentagon, where my husband worked for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I remember it being a beautiful autumn day with sunshine and a gentle cool breeze blowing. I had dropped my husband off at work, kissed him goodbye and continued to my office.
I got to work and started on my rounds to help people with their computer problems. I was on the third floor of my building when someone yelled, "Turn on the radio!" There was something in that voice that made everyone stand up and listen…something was happening but we did not know what yet. An old radio with a dial was found and we started to gather around it as the owner tried to find a channel through the static.
The static on the radio cleared up and we listened as the words "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center," became clear. We did not know what was going on and people started to move back to their desks to find out more information. I think everyone thought, "It must be a horrible accident." The radio was in the cubical right next to mine, and as we were listening the unthinkable happened: Another plane veered into the second tower. "Oh My God!" it hit everyone at the same time. This was no accident.
I had so many thought running in my head: Who did this? Why would they do this? What was happening to the people in New York? I had barely made it back to my office (where I had a TV and was looking at the recording from CNN), when the building shook and the world outside my window got dark and ash started to float by.
Oh my God, have we been hit? Then someone yelled, "The Pentagon has been hit!" I couldn't breathe--my husband was there. I don't know what I was thinking but I knew I had to get to the Pentagon. We started to evacuate the building and as people turned right to head away from the Pentagon, I turned left. My friends were telling me that there was no way I would find him but I knew that I had to try.
I had tears in my eyes and I could not hear anyone or anything. All I knew was I had to walk faster. (The 10-minute walk) to the Pentagon seemed like it took hours. There were people everywhere. I turned right onto Eads Street and was walking under the underpass heading into the Pentagon parking lot when the world opened up. People seemed to part and (as I looked) straight ahead, I saw my husband walking toward me.
The day was far from over but I felt safe again. We went back to work holding hands. I would not let him out of my sight for many, many hours. I was lucky that day; I had been blessed and spared from the loss of a loved one. (That day) changed me, and my world. It left a ghost that will haunt me forever.
Debra Stoneking is a contractor with the National Guard Bureau.
MASTER SGT. DOUGLAS TOLLIVER JR.
On Sept. 11th, 2001, I was a staff sergeant stationed in Vicenza, Italy, with the 14th Transportation Battalion. I had PCS (permanent change of station) orders and was to leave Italy in 30 days. The battalion CSM (command sergeant major) was holding a promotion board in one of the classrooms of the Education Center right across the parking lot from our battalion headquarters. I had a troop appearing before the board.
When she had finished her turn in front of the board we were leaving the building. I was pretty happy, as the Soldier had done an excellent job. As we walked out, one of the privates in our unit was standing on one of the balconies of our building. (He) called my name and he told me that he had just seen on the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I asked him to repeat what he'd said and after he'd done so, I told him to go watch TV and keep me posted on what was going on.
My Soldier and I immediately went in and started trying to get information on what was going on over our secure systems. We didn't really know what we were going to find but I wanted us to do something to find out. We didn't get anything. Instead we had to watch the news like everyone else.
Once we found out it was a terror attack, we all tried to figure out why, much the same as anyone else. Once it came to light who had done it and where he was hiding, (well) we all know what happened then; we went into Afghanistan.
My Battalion got orders to deploy and I still had to PCS. I hated having to put my troops on a bus while I was going to fly to the States. I think I got my PCS award or a plaque the day the unit left. After I got to Fort Hood (Texas) in late 2001, I think some of the teams out of my battalion were deployed.
The team I was assigned to, the 571st Transportation Detachment (Movemement Control), finally got a chance to go do our part, when we supported the 1st Cavalry Division for 13 months. After the deployment, I left the regular Army and went into the Reserves as an active Guard Reservist Soldier.
I have mixed feelings about the Middle East; we've been involved there ever since I can remember. Sometimes I think we'd be better off to let them deal with their own problems, yet I realize (the people) need assistance. I have a family now and I hope that the Middle Eastern nations get themselves fixed before my kids and the kids of my former co-workers have to go take a turn over there.
Master Sgt. Douglas Tolliver is the senior movements NCO with the 458th Transportation Detachment (Movement Control).
STAFF SGT. RORY ALLEN
I'm currently serving in Baghdad, Iraq, with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 417th Infantry Regiment, 98th Division. I've been a New York City firefighter for 10 years, and on Sept. 11, 2001, I was a member of Engine Company 209, quartered with Ladder 102 in Bed Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant), Brooklyn.
That day still seems like yesterday. I was at ground zero with my brothers (fellow firefighters). It felt like it was a (bad) dream. (We thought) there was no way anyone was left in the buildings when both towers fell to the streets below.
Everyone was asking about friends and family who might have been working that day, and I was concerned about my brother-in-law, firefighter Brian Cross, and his father, Battalion Chief Dennis Cross. I soon learned Brian was off that day, but Chief Cross was working, and soon after hanging up the phone the Battalion 57 chief's car drove past me and I thought all was well.
What I wasn't aware of was that Chief Cross was the acting deputy chief in Division 11, right across from
the towers on the Brooklyn side. We lost Chief Cross that day. He was killed while trying to pull a fireman out of harm's way.
The first night lasted forever and before I knew it, the sun was rising and the dawn of a new day was upon us--nothing (would ever be) the same for me, my family or our country. That day was only the beginning for me. I spent many days and hours upon hours digging with the hope of bringing my lost brothers and the many other innocent people home to their families.
The ultimate influence that day has had on me is really yet to be determined. I spend most days wishing I could have done more that day, as I'm sure most do, but mostly I use that day to remember what we lost as a nation and the price we continue to pay.
It took me a few years, but the time became right again, and after a break in service I returned to the Army hoping to do my part.
Today I'm an 11-year vet of the FDNY currently working in Ladder 112 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. On the military side, I'm in my 12th year in the Army preparing to return home to New York this summer to continue my service with the FDNY and the United States Army Reserves.
That day has forever changed our nation and will remain close to me. I know that one day my children, and even my grandchildren, will ask about it. I'm proud of my service to New York City and to this country I love so much. On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, I'll remember those we lost that day and all the days since, during our war on terror.
Editor's Note: When he wrote this piece, Staff Sgt. Rory Allen was deployed to Iraq with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 417th Infantry Regiment, 98th Training Division, Army Reserve.
SPC. AMIE MCMILLAN
As I reminisce on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it is hard for me to believe that 10 years have passed since our country--our lives--were interrupted by terrorists. I never imagined being a part of the history future generations would read about in school.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting in health class, my sophomore year at Bay High School in Panama City, Fla. The lessons were interrupted by a student running through the hallways, door to door, telling everyone to turn on their televisions. Our teacher Ms. Ann Logue quickly turned the television on to the news station, just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I remember feeling like I was watching a bad movie, thinking that nothing that bad could ever happen to the United States.
My eyes were glued to the news, watching the story unfold, seeing people flee as the debris was filling the streets of New York. I was in tears when I saw the second plane hit the buildings, as I heard the people screaming, and running for their lives on the news. It was hard for me to believe that I was actually witnessing something so horrific and terrifying--my heart sank.
I felt so vulnerable, and uncertain of the future at that particular moment. Thousands of questions flooded my mind as I saw people jumping from the World Trade Center building. I couldn't fathom being in their situation.
The following days and weeks at school were depressing, as we had students with family who had perished in the World Trade Center attacks.
We had numerous conversations about what happened and how it made us feel, as well as what the next step might be in defending our country.
As more and more news stories unfolded, and interviews with family members and survivors, I saw how strangers were coming together to lend a helping hand to those people affected by the tragedy. It was at that moment I realized what America is all about.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, I had never considered joining the military, but seeing how our brave men and women were stepping up to defend our country and honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy, another door of opportunity opened up in my mind. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to do something to defend their honor and our country. If I could have joined the military in 2001, I would have signed up right then, but I still had two more years of school before I could graduate.
After the attacks, that was the first time I had ever seen our country come together as one, and it made me extremely proud to be an American.
It didn't matter what race you were, political party, religion, you were an American, and that is all that mattered. I knew I would one day join the military, and the ranks of those brave servicemembers I had watched on the news, fighting for our country.
In August 2005, I joined the United States Army, and I have to attribute my service to the events of Sept. 11, and all of the men and women who came together to help each other in a time where we were at our weakest.
Ten years after the attacks, I'm serving my second tour in Iraq with honor and pride.
Spc. Amie McMillan is a media marketing coordinator with U.S. Forces Iraq, covering U.S. divisions-North and Center for Boots in the Sand.
SGT. 1ST CLASS SARAH ANDERSON
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Soldiers of The U.S. Army Field Band were training for tours on behalf of the Army's chief of public affairs. "America's Big Band--the Jazz Ambassadors" and "The Volunteers" rock band would be touring New England as directed by the Department of Defense, but the Concert Band and Soldiers' Chorus were gearing up for their first visit to Alaska in 14 years.
In the Jazz Ambassadors rehearsal hall, one of the trombone players had cunningly hidden his cell phone on his music stand, as usual, and received a text message from his wife: "bomb in nyc." Following a later text: "plane into pentagon," he suggested taking a break, and showed the messages to the officer in charge. After that, the news went around pretty quickly.
The deputy commander slipped quietly into each training area, waited for a pause in the action, and pulled each officer in charge aside. After taking accountability, the Soldiers were released to collect their children from school, while the command staff began contingency planning with the little information that was emerging in the news.
Over the next few days, training schedules were altered to allow for the multi-hour backups at the few Fort Meade (Md.) gates that remained open. As normal schedules resumed, the first thing that was needed was to decide was how it would affect the upcoming missions. During Desert Storm, tours had been lengthened and additional community performances had been scheduled to strengthen the bonds between the Army and the American people. Despite uncertain threat levels, that (could have been the case) for the "Jazz Ambassadors" and "The Volunteers" who would be touring by bus, but with all commercial aircraft grounded, what would happen to the missions in Alaska?
While training continued, the operations section scrambled to find alternatives. Could the National Guard fly us? Would trains work? They were able to breathe a sigh of relief once air travel resumed, but since all of the planned flights had originated from the still-closed Reagan National Airport, there were still plenty of questions.
Ultimately, Alaska Airlines was able to send a plane to Baltimore-Washington International, where they normally don't operate, using a gate loaned to them by another airline. On the planned departure day, the Concert Band and Soldiers' Chorus lined up at the Air Ghana desk, heavy winter coats in hand, to board what essentially became our charter flight. Due to the weight of the instruments in the rear of the plane, flight attendants urged the Soldiers to sit as close to the front as possible. Despite fastidious weighing and measuring in the months of planning leading up to the tour, some of the larger percussion instruments couldn't fit through the cargo door and had to be shipped separately; when they later met up with us, the tracking labels said simply: "US ARMY FIELD BAND. GOD BLESS AMERICA."
As with all performances by the musical ambassadors of the Army, this tour included lots of patriotic music. Music was added commemorating those who had died in the fateful attack. Every performance was packed--even above the Arctic Circle--and every concert had three or more encores as audiences applauded until their hands were raw.
Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Anderson is the library section leader with the U.S. Army Field Band.
Autumn arrived quickly in 2001, and I was glad. Having arrived at my new job in the Pentagon, July 23, I had told my friends that I couldn't wait until the end of September, when, after 60 days of experience, I would have a better handle on how to be an effective Pentagon spokesman.
Here I was, ahead of schedule, shy of the 60 days, and doing well. I had already survived briefings and queries on the forest fires out west and a tragic plane crash that took the lives of 21 National Guard members. I knew my job and I felt comfortable.
That Tuesday began quietly enough. We had a regular briefing scheduled like we did every Tuesday and Thursday. My only responsibility was to escort some officers of the Naval Reserve to watch our daily press briefing as part of their professional development. At about 8:30 a.m., I sent an email reminder to my Naval Reserve counterpart letting him know where and when I would meet the group. The TV on my desk was turned on to CNN, but muted, so I could concentrate on my emails.
"Holy shit!" I heard one of my co-workers shout from across the press room.
"Channel 2," another co-worker barked. It was not uncommon for us to yell out to each other and draw attention to media reports, but their intensity was disarming. I turned toward my TV and raised the volume. It was 8:46 a.m.
I watched a dark plume of smoke bellowing out of some of the higher floors of one of the World Trade Center buildings. As my colleagues conjectured on the cause, I grabbed the phone and called the command center for a situation report. One of my responsibilities was to be the Pentagon spokesman for disasters--this was clearly going to be in my lane. The command center indicated that they were faxing me the SITREP and before I could get out of my seat, Pentagon correspondents were at my desk asking for an explanation of the event and the phone started ringing.
I gave them a preliminary briefing, checked on the fax, which had not arrived yet, and began a log of events. As I continued to answer questions while watching the TV, I picked up the phone to call the command center. "Where's that fax?"
"Holy F#@*!" someone screamed. I turned to the TV and watched United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the second World Trade Center building. It was 9:02 a.m.--truly a moment frozen in time. So many things became instantly clear. We were being attacked. We were at war. The world had changed. The first building was not an accident. There could be more. Everyone started moving. I kept the command center on the line as they continued to update me. Every phone was either ringing or being used to call out. Everyone was talking at once. People were flipping channels, looking at different angles, trying to make sense of what had happened.
"Sir, we can't seem to get the SITREP fax to go through, and we have another classified update you need to see," the command center, still glued to my left ear, drew me away from the TV reports.
"I can't wait any longer," I responded. "I'm coming to you." I told my co-workers where I was going, and I headed for the door.
"What if they hit the Pentagon?" I heard someone ask, over my shoulder, as I cleared the doorway and headed down the hall.
"People can be so paranoid," I thought as I paced quickly down the corridor. My office was in the outer E-Ring at the end of the seventh corridor. I was heading toward an office between the 5th and 6th Corridors, still on the E-Ring. Still heading west, I was almost at my destination when I heard a loud explosion, felt the floor bounce, and saw dark smoke emanating toward me. People flew out of every door along the hallway, almost simultaneously, and started running. I would have described it as cartoonish, if it were not real. It was 9:37 a.m.
There was no doubt in my mind what had occurred. I knew immediately and did an about-face to return to my office to get my marching orders. On the way back, I realized by the frenzied remarks, that most people had no idea what had happened. Not many offices have TV's on their desks. Halfway back to my office, the sirens went off and the loudspeakers directed everyone to exit the building. I ignored the directive and continued on. I arrived back at the press office minutes later to discover everyone had gone. I returned to the hallway and followed the cattle-like movement toward the exit.
Most people were surprisingly calm. Certainly many of them had no idea what had happened. Those on the far side of the building may not have even heard the impact. But as we made our way slowly, occasionally I would hear someone crying or other frantic exclamations. As we rounded a corner and passed the courtyard, everyone could see and smell the smoke again. For those who were not previously aware, the fervor and urgency increased. As we finally approached the exits, the lines split in two and many left our line for the smaller one. I remained in my line, but not out of any bravado or false bravery. Actually, I was thinking about my nightly commute, and how every time I switched lanes, that lane would slow down. The thought almost made me laugh.
Then I looked up at a clock on the wall. It was 9:50 a.m. I knew what many around me did not know. I knew that the two Trade Centers were hit somewhere between 14 and 18 minutes apart. At this point, the plane had struck the Pentagon 13 minutes earlier and there were several hundred people between the door and me. Would there be another? I felt eerily resigned to my fate as I took small steps and tried to smile reassuringly to the worried faces around me.
A few minutes past ten o'clock, I was joining thousands of others in the sunshine of the parking lot. Dark smoke filtered into the sky from what used to be the fifth corridor. Sirens blared. Some people scurried. Others dialed away furiously on cell phones that weren't working. Federal buildings throughout the area were being evacuated. The streets were at a standstill, (filled) with vehicles and pedestrians.
I gave my business card to a co-worker I had found. I told him I was going to the nearby National Guard Bureau office and would set up temporary operations there. I wrote the number on the back of my card and headed out of the parking lot. With over 40,000 people scrambling around and at least a half dozen paths between our buildings, I chose a path and began weaving through the crowd. As I walked, I dialed away at my cell phone as well. After repeated tries I finally got through to my son. "I'm OK," I told him.
"Why wouldn't you be?" he mumbled back from a sleepy haze.
"Turn on the television," I said. "I will call you again as soon as I can."
The next few hours, days and weeks became a fog. I worked the first 40 hours straight. My co-workers began shift work at a gas station in close proximity to the still-smoking and smoldering Pentagon. They had one telephone and no automation. I provided the fax, computer and Internet link from my location to internal and external audiences. Once my colleagues were able to set up full operations again inside the Pentagon, I took a few hours off and went home to sleep. There were 27 messages on my answering machine when I finally got there.
I wrote this account soon after the attacks of 9/11. I have shared it with family and friends, but never published it. There are memories that stand out that, for whatever reason, I did not include then. I remember vividly how I would sit in meetings afterward in Pentagon conference rooms and find myself staring at the ceiling imagining what the first split second of an explosion bursting through the tiles would look like. I remember how McDonald's parked a big tent in the parking lot for many weeks giving out free meals to all employees, and even though I don't eat much fast food, I have found myself emotionally tied to golden arches ever since. To this day, every time I enter the Pentagon or even drive by, I catch myself looking to the sky.
I retired from the military Feb. 29, 2008. Since then I have found myself incapable of sharing what the military means to me. I have been chastised for not participating in some veterans events and failing to publicly recognize anniversaries, and I probably deserve the criticism. I have my stories and experiences like other veterans, but to capture and sum it all up in words is too much for me. I love the men and women who have served and are serving their country. But I have yet to find the words that suffice. So as I labor to come to terms with that, when asked to participate in an event, or give an interview, or share a blurb, I tend to borrow a line from (Herman) Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and respond, "I would prefer not to."
Dan Stoneking is the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Private Sector Division.
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 KAREN KILBURN
My sons and I were in our government quarters in Hannam Village in Seoul, Korea (Sept. 11, 2001). It was in the evening and I was watching the "The Today Show" live. My sons were in the next bedroom playing video games. I saw the news change over to the plane hitting the tower. We stayed awake all night watching the news unfold. My sons Kyle and Jordan were in ninth and fifth grades.
In the days that followed there was no school for my sons. I could not drive the 2 miles to Yongsan (Army Base). I ended up walking in. It would take hours to get on base as every car was searched. When school resumed, a noncommissioned officer or officer rode on every school bus.
I was the 1st Signal Brigade Chief Network technician.
Editor's Note: Chief Warrant Officer 3 Karen Kilburn's son, Jordan Whittington, is a private first class in the Army.