By Alex McVeighSeptember 11, 2009
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 11, 2009) -- As a steady rain fell down on the southwest side of the Pentagon, a spot where eight years ago, American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the building, families of the 184 who were killed gathered to pay tribute to their loved ones.
President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen hosted a ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial today to remember those who were lost.
The U.S. Amy Band Brass Quintet braved the rain to play a brief pre-ceremony concert, blending patriotic tunes with a few classical numbers as families made their way to the memorial just before the ceremony.
The Obamas were coming from the South Lawn of the White House, where they held a moment of silence there to commemorate the 2,752 people who perished in the day's attacks.
Once the official party arrived, Obama, Gates and Mullen stood at the podium, a line of American flags at their backs. Mullen introduced Gates, who spoke briefly about the attack eight years ago, the first major foreign-based attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812.
"Today we honor the dead and to speak to the survivors and loved ones whose lives were irrevocably changed on that terrible day eight years ago. Words are inadequate to remove the pain of that loss," Gates said. "Those who fell are commemorated here, and they are represented by the men and women you see around you acting as docents for this memorial."
Obama started by saying how humbled he was to be with the families that lost loved ones eight Septembers ago.
"On this solemn day, at this sacred hour, once more we pause. Once more we pray - as a nation and as a people, in city streets where our two towers were turned to ashes and dust, in a quiet field where a plane fell from the sky and here, where a single stone of this building is still blackened by the fires," Obama said.
"For you and your families, no words can ease the ache of your heart. No deeds can fill the empty places in your homes. But on this day and all that follow, you may find solace in the memory of those you loved, and know that you have the unending support of the American people."
Obama spoke of his admiration of the men and women who had joined the armed forced in the wake of the attack on their native soil, and pledged his and America's unwavering support to them in their mission.
"Let us renew our commitment to all those who serve in our defense-our courageous men and women in uniform and their families and all those who protect us here at home," the commander in chief said. "Mindful that the work of protecting America is never finished, we will do everything in our power to keep America safe."
After he spoke, the Obamas and Gates walked around the crowd, offering words of comfort and shaking hands of the more than 80 family members who had gathered at the memorial.
The Pentagon Memorial was dedicated and opened Sept. 11, 2008. Each year, a large American flag is hung nearby over the section that was hit by American Airlines Flight 77. One hundred eighty-four illuminated benches are now around the memorial, one for each person killed. Each bench has the name of a victim inscribed on it.
The benches are inscribed in such a way that to read the names of those killed in the Pentagon, one must face the section of the building that was hit. For the victims on flight 77, to read their names, one must face skyward along the path flight 77 traveled.
Families stayed around the memorial to visit their loved one's bench after the ceremony, and the memorial was opened to the public. As the president's motorcade left the Pentagon, scores of people could be seen making their way over to the memorial to pay tribute eight years after the attack.
In his closing words, President Obama challenged Americans to remember that they all fall under one flag, and that no matter what attacks are perpetrated, there are things that can never be taken away.
"On a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose," the president said. "Let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans united not only in our grief, but in our resolve to stand with one another, to stand up for the country we all love."
(Alex McVeigh writes for the Pentagram newspaper at Fort Myer, Va.)