U.S. strength grows from ashes of terrorism attacks
September 7, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Rising from the ashes of horrific destruction at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, was an example of a desired Army attribute that is getting a lot of attention these days.
That Army attribute? Resilience.
In the days and years following 9/11 -- and as the 10th anniversary approaches this Sunday -- the resilience of the military's servicemembers and civilians has permeated the Army culture and its values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Resiliency -- the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges, and to bounce back from adversity -- also defines an entire nation as it continues to respond to the threat of terrorism both at home and abroad.
"The attack on the Pentagon was a terrible moment in our history. But it was countered by example after example of selfless service and heroism," said Army Materiel Command Chaplain Col. Robert Coffey, who was serving at Crystal City across from the Pentagon at the time of the attack.
"At the same time that people were running out of the Pentagon, you saw many servicemembers and Department of Defense civilians running toward the smoke and fire to assist others. Many of those moments were captured on film, and it should inspire generations of Americans about the traits that make America a great land."
On Sept. 11, 2001, resiliency was the attribute that helped many at the Pentagon personally overcome the terrorist attack that took the lives of friends and co-workers, and threatened the core of the nation's military strength. That example was noticed by the entire country as the American psyche took in what happened on 9/11 and responded with resolve.
"Attitudes and fundamental daily processes were permanently and irrevocably changed," said retired Col. Rick De Fatta, who was the chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology at the Pentagon on 9/11 and later became project manager for Short Range Air Defense at Redstone. "For the first time since the second world war, foreign aggression significantly and directly impacted the innocent lives of everyday Americans -- at home. In effect, it brought 'the fight' to folks that had largely grown complacent with our military commitments and the security and freedom that our armed forces allowed them to enjoy.
"From that day forward, the Department of Defense also took on a new attitude and resolve. The same complacency that affected our citizens and impacted the military/industrial team through a general lack of support resulted in a 'business as usual' mode of operation. That approach was immediately replaced with renewed dedication and support for what we did for
the nation. Since 9/11, every program I have been involved with, both in and out of the military, has had a focus on immediate contributions and long-term commitment to our national security and defense. There was renewed urgency to provide responsive support to both our deployed troops and our forces providing homeland security."
As commercial jets crashed into the World Trade Center, many at the Pentagon knew there would be a war. Business continued, perhaps even more diligently because of the day's initial attack, within the walls of the 6.5-million-square-foot Department of Defense headquarters. Its 26,000 military and civilian employees had "no anticipation that anything would happen at the Pentagon," said Col. Skip Sherrell, who at the time was working in the Office of the Congressional and Legislative Liaison at the Pentagon and now is the chief of staff for the Aviation and Missile Command.
At 9:37 a.m. Eastern time, reality changed as American Airlines Flight 77, en route from Washington's Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon by five al-Qaeda-affiliated hijackers.
"We were about 150 yards from impact," Sherrell recalled. "We felt a shudder in the office and then heard someone yelling 'Smoke!' We quickly and without pain started getting out. Everything was very orderly. I think that goes back to (Department of Defense) civilians and military who worked in the building who are unfortunately used to working in crisis situations and dealing with the unknown."
At the time of the Pentagon attack, in another part of the building about 125 feet from where the airplane's right wingtip collided with the building, then Col. Bob Devlin was working as a deputy in the new offices of G-4 Logistics, preparing for a briefing he was going to give on aviation spares for AMCOM.
"We were trying to get back to some reasonable level of spares to keep helicopters flying," he said. "My wife had called and told me a couple of planes had just hit the World Trade Center and she said 'I guess you're at war.' We knew it was a terrorist attack. But New York got hit. It wasn't the Pentagon. So I walked down the hall to do the briefing.
"Part way through the briefing, the room started to shake and ceiling tiles fell. Someone yelled 'A plane hit the building!' I walked out in the hallway and smoke was rolling down the hall toward us. Rubble was everywhere. We began moving people out of the Pentagon to the parking lot. The plane was disintegrated, but we could see smoke coming from the building. Since two planes had hit the World Trade Center, we kept thinking 'When is the second plane going to hit the Pentagon?' The police wanted us to get away from the building because they expected a second plane. We were trying to find ways to get people out and we wanted to start doing accountability of employees."
No sign of plane
Even as employees were evacuating the building, many did not know what had happened.
"We thought a helicopter had crashed at the helipad (right outside the area hit)," Sherrell said. "We couldn't tell. Everything was consumed. It had knocked down parts of the building, but there was no sign that an airplane had crashed into the building from the outside. We were all trying to assist those still in the building."
Inside the Pentagon, 125 people were killed along with the 64 people on the airliner. But those numbers could have been much higher. Because of renovations, several offices in the area where the plane hit were unoccupied, including the previous offices where Devlin and the other 200 G-4 employees had been located only two weeks earlier.
"There should have been 5,000 people working in the area that was hit. (There were actually only 800 assigned to the area at the time.) Our old offices were destroyed by fire. I had friends down the hallway on the fourth floor who walked right into that fire and burned to death," Devlin said. "Renovations clearly helped keep the building together, or there would have been even more deaths."
The attack, though unbelievable and terrible in that it was against civilians on U.S. soil, did not cause Devlin or others to hesitate in their response.
"I had been shot at before. I had been in Somalia and this was kind of like one of the mortar attacks I had experienced there," he said. "When the first one happens, there is really nothing you can do. You start waiting for the next one and try to be prepared."
Both Sherrell and Devlin would end up spending the day helping others leave the Pentagon. They were able to get messages to their wives, although Devlin's wife had to wait six hours before finding out her husband was still alive. The next day, Devlin reported to duty at the Army Operations Center at the Pentagon.
"It was surreal. Walking in the other side of the Pentagon, everything looked normal. The only difference was you could smell jet fuel," he said.
"There was flooding and collapsing in the Pentagon where the plane hit. And there were a lot of employees calling and a lot of questions. At the time of the attack, we were coming to the end of the fiscal year. How do you close out budgets and start a new fiscal year when you can't even get to your computers and you don't have anywhere to put employees? We eventually got our computers and we did a lot of teleworking. I ended up working a lot of the response, identifying casualties, supporting budget closeouts and getting ready for war."
Across from the Pentagon at Crystal City on 9/11, chaplain Coffey assisted in setting up a command and control center. Later in the day, he assisted with recovery efforts at the Pentagon and remained overnight to set up the chaplain's operation tent within the security perimeter across from the attack site.
"All that happened that day made us more aware of the need for vigilance against unconventional attacks. But it also revealed the strength of the American people when they refused to let the 9/11 attack define the way we would live our way of life. Civilian and military personnel showed up for work at the Pentagon the next morning," Coffey said.
Col. Bob Pastorelli, who had just finished a briefing as a member of the Army G-3 Operations team when the plane hit the Pentagon, recalled the nation's reactions after 9/11.
"Initially, there was a great sense of loss by every American that day. Thereafter, the sheer act itself became a rallying call that immediately united the country and gave us all a sense of purpose to overcome this tragedy and to go after those responsible for such a heinous crime against innocent people," said Pastorelli, who now works for the Security Assistance Command at Redstone.
"The 9/11 attacks put all of us on a wartime footing that included both those in the service of their country (military, civilian and contractor) and the everyday citizen. As for me personally, our focus in Army G-3 shifted directly to supporting the commanders and their troops as they prepared for upcoming operations."
In the following days and weeks, Pentagon employees dealt with the aftermath of the attack -- the funerals for co-workers, re-organizing offices and finding new offices for organization's affected by the attack, getting back to the business of the military and preparing to go to war.
"Day after day there were funerals," Devlin said. "I could see it wearing on people."
Helping survivors recover was a top priority.
"The first thing we did was take care of the families of those we had lost," Sherrell said. "Then, we had to get the military prepared to conduct operations. We had to transition to an Army at war, which is very different from a legislative perspective. I was a congressional fellow with military experience, so I could relate with what was going on both at the Pentagon and downrange. We were busy taking care of families, honoring those who had passed and recognizing we would be in a war or combat not short in duration."
Devlin went on to serve as the Garrison commander at Redstone and is now retired from the military and serving as the deputy director for Marshall Space Flight Center operations.
"On Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary, I was looking out the window and I thought 'I don't want to be here.' I didn't want to be another target. But terrorism can happen anywhere," he said.
Since that day, the military has answered the call, making the sacrifices to fight the nation's battle against terrorism. The past 10 years have made the nation's military stronger, more capable and responsive, and more committed to promoting freedom throughout the world. Yet, there has been a cost.
"We've had 10 years of perpetual deployments and combat," Sherrell said. "Our military has had very little time at home. That has affected retention and recruitment. But our military recognizes what was required and continues to serve and to do so quietly, effectively and humbly, even after 10 years of war."
The war has required tremendous personal sacrifices. Soldiers have lost their lives or have returned from war with lifelong injuries. Families have had to cope with separations and loss. Commanders have had to deal with the "loss of great Americans under their command and have assisted their families as best we can," Sherrell said.
During those years, the military's support of families has improved. The Wounded Warrior program along with other programs offered through the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs have made a difference for servicemembers recovering from war injuries.
And although the U.S. has been successful in beating back terrorism, Sherrell believes it will take much more to eradicate the root of terrorism.
"When the World Trade Center was hit we knew it was an act of terrorism," he said. "Since then we've been trying to locate and eradicate the individuals that caused the attacks, but also we've been trying to eradicate the causes that lead someone to want to be a terrorist. It's one thing to find people, but it takes a long time to deal with the cause. And it is difficult to come to a successful conclusion when the enemy is difficult to identify."
Sherrell said the U.S. is safer with the Global War on Terrorism fought within the borders of other nations rather than on U.S. soil.
"I think it's important to recognize that the last 10 years of no terrorist attacks in the continental U.S. were not without great sacrifice and that continues to demand great sacrifice," he said.
In the wake of the 9/11 attack, Americans have become more appreciative and supportive of their military, they better understand the nation's role with world coalition partners and they are more interested in the aspects of globalization.
"9/11 heightened the nation's awareness and vigilance," Coffey said. "It increased pride and respect for the nation's military, a realization that freedom and security are each citizen's responsibility and a determination to preserve this excellent way of life for our children and their children."
And more than anything, security will remain an issue in the American consciousness.
"We have been fundamentally changed in a way that will never be reversed," De Fatta said. "9/11 demonstrated that no matter how prepared we think we are, we are always going to be vulnerable in some way to unconventional attacks from a determined adversary, and we don't know who that will be or how they will try to attack. Therefore, I believe that virtually all Americans are willing to sacrifice in some way to preserve our freedoms, and are much more
tolerant of national efforts to accomplish that goal. The concern for economic success, guaranteed rights and the good old American way will always now be underwritten by a concern for national and personal security."
More stringent travel policies and procedures, a new Homeland Security organization and better personal awareness also add to the safety of Americans, Pastorelli added.
"Americans now understand that we should continue to support foreign countries and our allies to counter terrorism in all forms and fashion in addition to always looking for peaceful ways to end strife, discord and belligerence," he said.
In addition, the U.S. government is more integrated and connected both on the federal and state levels to better protect personal freedoms and deter terrorism.
"We should maintain a viable, strong and overwhelming military capability as the most significant deterrent force, immediately respond to attacks, successful or unsuccessful, with appropriate measures, continue to develop robust defensive capability for the homeland, deployed forces, and allied nations, and continue diplomatic efforts to bring the U.S. closer to
former and potential future adversaries," De Fatta said. "Also we should continue to develop technical and procedural approaches to preventing, identifying and eliminating the possibilities for direct or indirect attacks."
There are concerns by several military leaders that U.S. defense budget cuts and drawdown policies could re-energize terrorism efforts worldwide.
"We have to be very careful how we conduct our military drawdown," Sherrell said. "We have to be careful to focus on programs both military and non-military that have led to stronger homeland defense measures.
"We have to focus on the importance of building coalitions as we get involved in warfare and as we deal with long-term solutions for difficult circumstances. That requires a greater relationship between the Department of Defense and the State Department … The military will continue to make a difference with the support of the American people. We have strengthened our collective resolve as we have dealt and responded to 9/11."
Even though U.S. agencies have become experts at identifying and preventing possible attacks, the threat is still there.
"I worry that we don't know enough about the form and target of the next attack from an increasingly more sophisticated adversary," De Fatta said. "The next devastating attack probably won't involve airplanes, explosives, or overt actions, but seems more likely to be covertly aimed at infrastructure, processes and everyday services. I know there are defensive efforts ongoing to detect and deter these threats, but as they say, you don't know what you don't know."
In the end, more than anything, 9/11 woke up a resiliency within the American people and its military that has made it stronger in the stand for freedom, Pastorelli said.
"Sept. 11, 2001 shows us that no one is immune to terrorism and that the great people of the United States are resolute to bring about its eventual end and/or stop those that perpetuate its use," he said.