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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

9/11: A retrospective from one military officer

Story by Major David Westover, USAF.

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti –As I approach the conclusion of a 4-month deployment here in the Horn of Africa, I realize that the horrific events of September 11, 2001, are exactly why I’m serving in this part of the world today, and why I am still serving in the military after 14 years.

Here it is five years later, when many of us will recount the time and place we were on that tragic day in America, when the world literally changed before our eyes.

I was a junior captain at the Pentagon working as a media relations officer on the Air Force Press Desk with about 10 other public affairs officers. Shortly after our morning meeting, one-by-one we gathered around the bank of TV monitors, as all the major news networks focused their lenses and the world’s attention on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Like many people, we couldn’t understand how a small aircraft could have mistakenly crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Although somewhat perplexed, I went back to my workspace to get on with my daily routine of responding to press inquiries and arranging media interviews.

Next thing I remember, one of my colleagues began shrieking as she watched a commercial jet crash into the other tower. In that instant, the whole world knew this was not an accident. It was an act of terrorism – a deliberate attack on America. I can still remember the anxiety as the Air Force crisis action team (CAT) was activated in the bowels of the Pentagon. Although I was not recalled to the CAT, I proceeded to the weekly staff meeting with the Air Force Director of Personnel. As expected, the mood in the small conference room was extremely somber as the 3-star general began the meeting. He had very few, solemn words as he spoke of the tragic events that had just taken place in New York City. I had difficulty focusing as the horrific images were still fresh in my mind.

Then, as the first staff officer began his weekly update to the general, the conference room and the rest of the 17-miles of hallways and office spaces in the Pentagon trembled as a third commercial jet crashed into the southwest side of the building. At the time, my first thoughts were “it’s a car bomb -- we’re under attack,” and that it had to be related to the events in New York City. Within seconds, a young sergeant busted through the door telling us that we need to evacuate the building -- now!

It was quite unclear who was directing the nearly 20,000 employees out of the building that day. It was controlled chaos as we quickly made our way down the stairwells and through the long hallways, elbow to elbow, doing my best to conceal my fear and anxiety. I’ll never forget leaving the south exit and looking over my right shoulder and seeing the huge plume of black smoke rolling over the massive 5-story structure. The Pentagon – the symbol of U.S. military strength and power – on fire. It was surreal.

The most difficult part was knowing that my wife, Laura, didn’t know where I was or if I was all right. She was with our 4 year-old twin daughters at Bolling Air Force Base, right across the Potomac River, watching the news and seeing that same plume of smoke coming from the Pentagon. There was no cell phone service, as a steady stream of people walked across I-395 towards Pentagon City where thousands of military members and government employees had fled that morning.

I can recall hearing subsequent explosions, which must have been the aircraft’s fuel tanks. It seemed to raise the crowd’s anxiety. But not as much as when we heard that there was another plane in the air. We all feverishly scanned the sky above the smoke-filled sky, in the direction of the Washington Monument and east toward Reagan National Airport. What was going to happen next? I had never felt as vulnerable, as I did that morning.

Although there was panic in the air, the crowd continued to move south toward Crystal City. I can recall encountering people that I knew asking, “Do you have a cell phone? Are you all right? Did you get in touch with your family yet?”

We soon learned that the fourth commercial jet went down in the rural Pennsylvania field in Shanksville.

While I tried to comprehend what was happening that day, I remained focused on reaching my family and telling them that I’m alive and well.

About two or three hours later, I finally was able to locate a vacant phone in a business office. I made a call to my wife and children. They were ecstatic to hear that I was safe. Still, my wife and I, like much of our generation, were in a state of absolute shock and dismay. Together we wept with joy and sorrow, all at once.

I finally made my way back home via the Metro at nearly 2 p.m. When we met, Laura and I did our best to conceal our fears and anxiety in front of our daughters, who were just happy to have Daddy home from work early. Their innocence was not going to be broken that day.

As I walked in the door, I was greeted with a phone message that I needed to work the night shift on the alternate CAT. It was a logical request, because it was now set up right there on the base.

Despite a mix of fatigue and adrenaline, I attempted to get some rest before the overnight shift. However, I couldn’t help but flip from one news network to the next to get the latest updates of the day’s tragic events. I reported into work that night emotionally exhausted.

After a few hours of trying to assemble some sort of a public affairs plan, the decision was made to move the Air Force CAT back to the Pentagon. I can still remember boarding one of the several blue military aircrew buses. In silence, we stared straight ahead and others looked out the window as we made our way back to the Pentagon. We all knew that more than 180 people were killed or missing there that day.

It was around 3 a.m., and the building was still on fire. However, it was now under control. I’ll never forget the stringent smell of burning debris, or seeing the fine black dust in the hallways as we entered the dark, empty building.

We all went our separate ways to get our respective sections up and running for what would eventually be…the Global War on Terrorism…and now the Long War.

Within 18 hours after the attack, we were back in operation at the Pentagon – a true sign of American military strength and resolve. However, I was worn out as I completed my overnight shift. I drove back home to Bolling AFB. As I pulled into the driveway, my emotions well up within me as I noticed one thing out of place.

It was right then and there, at the first break of light on the morning of Sept. 12th, as I was displaying the American flag near the entrance to my house, I knew exactly why I served in the U.S. military. I felt a rush of patriotism and a love for my country like never before -- one that most Americans also seem to embrace over the next several weeks and months. I can still remember how simply seeing an American flag provided an unexplainable sense of comfort and a genuine sense of duty.

Now five years later, I am deployed to Djibouti, Africa. Our mission here is to conduct operations and training to assist host nations to combat terrorism, in order to establish a secure environment and enable regional stability. I’ve had the opportunity to work with our U.S. Embassy staffs in this region and have visited the former embassy sites in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where terrorism reared its ugly head more than 8 years ago.

It is even more evident to me now why I continue to serve in the U.S. military. As the public affairs director for CJTF-HOA, it is our mission to educate the public and to effectively communicate what it is that we are doing here in the Horn of Africa.

From my perspective, it’s quite simple…if we can continue to build partnerships and offer a positive contribution to help the people in this part of the world help themselves, then we will continue to be successful.

Reflecting back on the tragic events of 9/11 five years ago today, it has truly been an honor to serve with CJTF-HOA – a team that has decisively stepped up to this daunting challenge.

Category: (Military) HOA and (Africa) Horn of Africa.
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