More than a 150 friends, family and workers gathered at Redstone Arsenal Nov. 13 to remember the fallen and commemorate the anniversary of the 1995 bombing that took the lives of six Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard employees in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
A solemn ceremony was hosted by OPM-SANG's higher headquarters, the Security Assistance Command, and held in the Great Hall of USASAC headquarters. The ceremony opened with a musical prelude by the Army Materiel Command Band, followed by an invocation from USASAC Chaplain (Col.) Bob Owen.
Retired Col. William Huff was OPM-SANG's deputy to the program manager at the time of the bombing. During the ceremony, Huff described to a rapt audience the events of that fateful day. While going about their routine duties at the OPM-SANG headquarters, which was located on one of the many compounds in downtown Riyadh, a car bomb parked next to the building's cafeteria exploded at approximately 11:20 a.m. Nov. 13, 1995.
Huff relayed the scene in detail as U.S. and foreign personnel who escaped serious injury scrambled to drag surviving personnel out of the blown-out building. Upon the bomb's detonation, the cinderblock frame became deadly shrapnel. Huff said Americans and foreigners worked frantically to keep the injured alive by slowing bleeding injuries and transporting the victims to medical facilities. He said it was a chaotic scene; accurate personnel accountability was initially muddled; and securing their safety and fortifying the compounds in the days and months after the attack was a nonstop effort.
Although the attack did not receive a great deal of media attention, it was the first recorded act of terrorism on Americans by the organization that later would be known as al Qaeda. During this deliberate act of violence, five OPM-SANG employees were killed. Three years later, on the anniversary of the bombing, a sixth employee died from wounds sustained during the bombing.
"Many more personnel were injured, and live today with the physical and emotional scars of that horrific day," guest speaker and USASAC Commander Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald said during the ceremony.
McDonald said the way the tight-knit OPM-SANG employees reacted to the tragedy showed the world how America and our Army responds to adversity -- with strength and resolve.
"In the American spirit of perseverance, the men and women of OPM-SANG banded together and pulled their friends and colleagues from the wreckage," he said. "In the days and months following the attack they continued their mission and continued to support America's interests abroad. From firsthand accounts, I can tell you that they carried on honorably in the face of uncertainty. And we are a grateful nation."
McDonald said America is grateful for the tragic sacrifices of the fallen and wounded, but also for the survivors "who went about the business of rebuilding what our enemies tried to tear down."
"They announced to our allies and enemies alike that the cowardly act of terrorism would not impede American interest or our Army's mission," he said.
Former OPM-SANG employee Barbara Tooley knows this firsthand. Tooley, who attended the ceremony, was in the building during the explosion and helped drag people to safety. She said it was a simple matter of chance and timing that prevented her death.
"I had just walked out of my office and went across the hall to photocopy some papers for civilian payroll, when the bomb went off. I was on the backside of the building, which is what saved me from being hurt, because when I returned to my office, the door was blown off and the back wall was peppered with (shrapnel)," Tooley said. She and her husband traveled from Guthrie, Oklahoma, to Redstone Arsenal for the 20th anniversary ceremony.
She said the many miles she would have to travel to attend the ceremony did not dissuade her.
"Our staying in contact and gathering to remember is part of the grieving process," she said. "We never had a chance to fully mourn because we were too busy trying to rebuild and take care of one another. I remember being off for one day before being called back in to assist."
But quickly returning to work proved a blessing.
Tooley said she, and others, needed to keep their minds busy to avoid dwelling on the catastrophe. Two decades after the bombing, Tooley said she now has the leisure and strength to reflect and mourn.
"We will never forget the sacrifices of the fallen nor the fortitude of the survivors," McDonald said during his closing remarks. "We will always honor them at our ceremonies and gatherings, on plaques and memorials. And we will also remember them with our actions."
McDonald charged the USASAC family to "keep their memories alive and their sacrifice honored by emulating the personal courage and selfless service witnessed on that day. Keep your heads up and your hearts lifted as we carry on the work that they began."
Following his remarks, he and USASAC Command Sgt. Maj. Dana S. Mason Jr. conducted a wreath presentation. After the ceremony came to a close, the former OPM-SANG employees remained in the Great Hall to exchange updates and contact information.
Sixty-one people who were injured or killed in the bombing were presented the Purple Heart Medal.