Remembering 9-11 – Up Close

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2022
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

As the 9-11 21st anniversary passes, emotions swirl. Some years, I put them away, others I embrace them. Some years, I travel to Arlington National Cemetery, where good friends lost that day are buried. I walk, think, strain for voices on the wind, listen for echoes of the past, and watch the shadows stones cast.

Sometimes people ask me, why do you write so much? Why do you bother? Why stay engaged when it makes little difference? Why keep at it when few read, fewer think, and mind’s do not change – what’s the point? Why stay so focused on America’s future, revisit the past, and press people to grab hard the present?

Well, here is the point. America is the sum of our investments, yours and mine, those who have gotten us to this point, those we see each day, those who depend on us to pass forward meaning preserved the best we can, true to what others did for us, some of whom lie beneath those stones.

The day was bright, almost too bright. The sun made me wince. The morning of September 11, 2001, seemed like any other. How unlike any other, I would soon learn. I boarded a DC plane scheduled to depart 45 minutes before American Airlines flight 77.  Both planes were headed west, mine to Phoenix, theirs Los Angeles. Neither would go where they were headed.

As a DC-based Navy reserve intelligence officer, I regularly worked with active-duty friends in the Pentagon. We comprised the CNO-IP (Chief of Naval Operations-Intelligence Plot), our job essentially tracking red forces around the world, producing products, and briefing up the chain. On that day, my civilian job sent me to Arizona for a speech, so I was not there.

What happened after I boarded the plane changed me, changed the nation, and ended the lives of my CNO-IP friends – who at the time were actively tracking terrorist-flown planes, working to protect America. Angie, Jerry, Darin, Jonas, Dan, and Vince were among the 184 who perished at the Pentagon that day, 2,977 nationally. They died when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, got to the 4th ring, and entered our spaces. Their stories were memorialized by Richard Leiby in the Washington Post.

At the exact time that was happening and for most of 9-11, I was in the air. The captain announced he was ordered to land wherever he was, so we descended swiftly – planes nose to tail, like elephants in a line – into Wichita Kansas. Once down, we were told what had happened – the twin towers collapsed to the ground, the Pentagon was hit, a national emergency declared, and our nation was at war.

I had no idea about my friends’ fate, but I knew had to get back. I called home, rented a car, drove through the night. The night will forever live in my mind. Every rural and urban media market in a dozen states announced prayer meetings – even National Public Radio. Small groups held candles roadside, praying. Flags covered every overpass, ambulances silently rushed blood to waiting military airplanes, thinking the blood was needed in New York and DC.  

It was not. What was worse – as I drove those 23 hours – is individual calls came in, a fellow naval officer informing me one by one, our friends were gone. I volunteered for active duty that night, and within days was helping rebuild the CNO-IP, working with other active-duty volunteers.

We began in Maryland, near Andrews Air Force Base, and eventually relocated to the Pentagon, working in spaces adjacent to the destroyed “wedge” where the plane had entered, now closed off by floor-to-ceiling plastic. I will never forget, cannot forget, the smell of the place, the horror of it.

In time, America rebuilt the Pentagon and Americans tried to resume a sense of normal, find solace in old routines, remake the world we had lost. But life changed, the country’s psychology altered. We were at war, a war that would expand before it contracted, all involuntarily vigilant.

For me, active duty devolved to reserves, family priorities, the chance to serve at State with Colin Powell. Pentagon shifts faded. The opportunity to train Iraqi and Afghan police surfaced. National security seemed to become central for most of the nation, by circumstance not choice.

Looking back 21 years, my mind and heart get caught in a strange vortex, imagining those six friends and our liberty-loving nation as we were, as they were, young and unaware of the imminent danger – then suddenly too aware, wholly overwhelmed, their young lives gone, the world forever changed.

So, these days, having watched our nation wage two wars in the aftermath of 9-11, seek to rebuild two nations brought low by what followed, sacrifice more than 7000 more American lives, spend three trillion dollars under four presidents trying to put right the post-9-11 world, one is humbled.

The reality is this. We who live post-9-11, who lived through it and remember it, some more personally, some as an unmitigated, unconscionable attack on our nation – have an obligation. What obligation? The obligation to stay engaged, step up, speak up, do what we can – to preserve the liberties for which the nation stands and for which so many died.

Why? Because we live and they do not – that is the nub of it. Our burden is to understand how special life in America is – and, with all we can muster, defend Her. Strain for those voices on the wind, listen for those echoes of the past, and know – it is on us now.