Friends,This week marks the 18th anniversary of a horrific moment in our nation’s history and in my family’s’ life.
It took me quite a few years to write down this memoir and I went back to all those involved to make sure my memories were accurate. My motivation to write this in such a detailed way was driven by an incredible chance meeting of the daughter of one of the victims.
God has blessed me over and over throughout my life and I was so thankful to hug my wife and children at the end of the day.Pause to remember all those who lost their lives and never miss a chance to thank those who serve to protect and defend us each day.
September 11th has always been a great day in our family—that’s our oldest sister Kim’s birthday. Kim and I are very close and it’s an honor to call her and to chat on her birthday. Kim has always been the leader in our family that has kept us through many challenges through the years. In 2001, September 11 took on a new meaning.
After graduating from The George Washington University in the spring of 2002, I was selected to be an “Air Officer Commanding” at the US Air Force Academy. In this role, I was Mom, Dad, Teacher, Mentor, and Disciplinarian to 120 of the brightest officer candidates in America. I was in a great place to mold and influence the future “Leaders of Character for our Nation”.
Each year, the Air Force Academy Hosts the National Character and Leadership Symposium. In February 2002, I was chosen to be a facilitator during the event. During this three-day conference, a large number of students would travel from all over the country to exchange ideas and to learn from one another in the areas of leadership, character, and ethics.
Prior to attending the event, these students were asked to write a competitive paper. In this particular year, the subject was “Privacy versus Liberty”. Just how much privacy would Americans give up in order to protect our nation from the recent terrorist attacks?
To begin the session, we were asked to facilitate tabletop discussions with a small group of students. As a discussion starter, we were to ask, “Where were you on 9/11/01?” One of the students was from the Colorado School of Mines. He was in a Mechanical Engineering class and wondered why the Towers had not fallen. Another student stated that all their classes had been cancelled. When we came to a young lady from the University of Portland she became very emotional and said that she had kept trying to get in touch with her Dad.
I could tell that we had touched a nerve and she was obviously uncomfortable to share any more. We skipped her and then continued to move around the table and listen to stories of “how bad” each person had it that day.
I planned to share my story last. That summer, as an Air Force Intern, I had started a position in the Department of Defense Accessions Policy Department. Paul Nosek and I worked in the same office. We both were assigned different projects but often were able to share lunch and exchange our experiences. Paul was actually working with the Washington Redskins Marketing Department and helping to coordinate the Department of Defense involvement during the Redskins home games. Secretary Rumsfield was a season ticket holder and had a great interest in having recruiter booths, military troops at the game, and a military member often singing the National Anthem. Paul and I even got to go to the stadium one time to visit with their senior executives…that was pretty cool. My projects were not as exciting yet I still learned a great deal about Industrial and Organizational Psychology which came in handy as I transitioned to my corporate life a few years later.
There were some e-mails going around early that morning that said turn on CNN and check out what just happened in New York. We really didn’t pay much attention at first. As more and more people were getting notes in the office, we moved into the conference room where we all were watching the events unfold in New York. As the second plane struck we all had the same sickening feeling that fell over America—this is deliberate; we’ve been attacked.
There were probably a dozen or so of us in the conference room. I was leaning on the doorjamb and was half in and out of the room. The room was solemn but someone light-heartedly commented that we were sitting in a pretty big target and that they were not going to the courtyard for lunch.
It was 9:43 when heard a quiet rumble and felt the building move. We all stared at each other in disbelief. What had just happened? What was probably ½ second seemed like an eternity. Someone said, “Ray, go see what happened”. We were in the second corridor of the “B” ring. The outer ring of the Pentagon is the “E” ring and the center ring is the “A” ring. I ran to the end of the hall and went toward the center of the building toward the inner portion of the building. Panicked civilians and military members were scrambling toward me saying “it’s a bomb…get out now”.
I went back into our office area and relayed the information—it’s a bomb and we need to get out. Lieutenant Commander Yvette Braunweiler said that we should all grab our personal items and get out now. As I gathered by belongings and placed them into my shoulder bag, I looked at my e-mail. I got a note from Captain Mike Foutch who was in a building in Crystal City. His note said, “Oh sh**, a plane just hit the Pentagon”. I read this as I departed the building.
As we headed down the second corridor hall toward the parking lot, someone opened the doors and immediately the smell hit us all. Having been in the Air Force for many years we all knew the smell of JP4—aircraft fuel. There were no doubts as this smell filled our senses—an airplane must have hit our building.
There was a great panic amongst the crowd. Some were running. Some were walking calmly. A lady next to us was being pushed out in her office chair. She was overwhelmed by fright, panic, and the thoughts of what we might see when we exited the building. There were several friends and co-workers helping her. For the next two months this very chair remained in the parking lot. I would pass it each day and wonder how she was doing.
Paul and I stood outside and looked to our right. The smoke and flames were billowing over the building. The security guys continually tried to push us farther away from the Pentagon. I found Craig Harding’s new white Dodge truck. We had met earlier in the day at the “slug lot” at Horner Road so we could carpool together. We waited there for some time and never did see Craig. As we leaned against his truck and watch the turmoil, ashes began to fall on us. I am not sure why, but I had the odd thought that people had died and these ashes could be all that remained of them. It was a very, very somber moment.
At one point, we ran into Tom Palenske. Tom was a Special Operations MH-53 helicopter pilot. He looked at the point of impact and said that he was trained and his help was needed. Tom ran toward the flames. The next morning, Matt Lauer interviewed Tom with two other classmates of ours on television–they shared their story of trying to help.
There was no cell phone service but as we saw those we knew, we wrote their names down so we could relay the information to each other’s families. The first person to get in touch with any of our spouses would relay all the information we knew.
As the events continued to unfold, the threat of another plane drove the mass crowd even further away. At one point, we were driven across the interstate and closer to Crystal City. We had no radio or Internet and were really confused in what to do. We did hear a distant jet engine and that brought great panic into the crowd. As the sound grew louder and closer we realized it was an F-16 providing air cover for us all — cheers rose up from the crowds. A great moment of pride in the middle of an incredibly horrific event.
Eventually, Paul and I decided to begin walking south in Interstate 95. We really had no choice. Neither one of us had a car, traffic wasn’t moving, and we had no way to communicate. As we began walking, we decided to make a sign on notebook paper saying “Horner Road”. We knew if we got there we could get to one of our cars and get home. Right away a couple of fine Americans picked us up. They were riding in a maroon minivan and had the door open listening to the radio. We were walking about as fast as the traffic so it just made sense for them to pick us up. As we listened to the broadcast, we learned that both Towers had collapsed. As we progressed south, we could also see the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon.
Both the President and Secretary Rumsfeld had statements to make that evening on TV. Rumsfeld said that it was “business as usual” and that we should all report to work the next day. I went in the 2nd Corridor door, looked up and noticed the roof was on fire, and then settled into my office. As I began to answer emails from concerned friends and family, a rather large security guard came in and quickly asked me to depart. She said this section was closed because of damage. Someone had obviously removed the yellow tape that should have prevented my entry. I asked where I was supposed to report and she did not have an answer for me. I made my way to the Air Force Personnel sector and found those in charge of the Intern Program. They let me know I would be temporarily relocated to another part of the city.
For the next three days, Craig Harding, Ron Allen, and me worked on the roof of the Pentagon overseeing contractors as they removed the slate roofing, discarded the burned furring strips, and placed tarps over the areas to prevent additional water damage to the building. Each load of rubble was removed with a square point shovel and a wheelbarrow. Dumpsters were hoisted to the roof by men operating a variety of cranes. As each one was filled, they would replenish our needs with an empty vessel. We were covered in soot and sweat. We were physically exhausted each day—our fatigue uniforms were drenched with sweat and we were emotionally drained. Somehow this hard manual labor became a therapeutic way of us giving back to our fallen comrades.
Our senior officer was Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne. He served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy. After the attack, Lt Gen Van Alstyne became the liaison to the families of the victims. The Sheraton Hotel became the command post from which all activities would take place. An outpouring of support came from across the country—counselors, grief dogs, restaurant support, quilts—you name it—people supplied it. We would sometimes have to go to the Sheraton to deliver items. The ballroom was transformed into a memorial for the families. There were tables set up all around the room to honor the fallen. Families stayed for up to 30 days waiting for word that their loved ones had been found.
On October 11, 2001, President Bush would address the families and the nation. We were asked to escort the families from the Sheraton to the Pentagon. The bus ride over was one of the quietest trips I’ve ever taken. Prior to boarding, family members would ask if I knew their relative. The Pentagon is an incredibly large place—17.5 miles of hallways; 23,000 employees. I did not personally know any of the deceased. They freely shared stories of these heroes’ lives. I was in silent awe.
Over the next few months, a handful of woodworkers across the country formed “Woodworkers United for America”. Our mission was to make flag cases from solid American hardwoods and deliver them to the victims’ families to hold the flags that so many of them received. Earlier in my career, I conducted over 225 military funerals to honor the service of our fallen brethren. These flag cases are the final memory that many of the family members have and are very important. We ultimately delivered over 750 cases to families of victims from all three locations—Pentagon, World Trade Center, and Pennsylvania. Several woodworking clubs from across the country made significant contributions: Phil Cullen, George Dubois, and Dick Mueller were instrumental in getting this initiative started and seeing it through to the end.
In a strange twist of fate, a fellow AF intern, Captain John Price asked if he could assist. John reached out to a number of corporate sponsors and received $1,000 from Walmart to help us purchase flags. Some family members requested more than one case and we would need to provide the flag.
As I we all left for other assignments in May 2002, John gave me a folder with all of the information inside about our corporate donors. Years later, I was sitting in a classroom conducting “Media Training” with senior officers of Walmart Operations. Kathy Cox and Betsy Reithmeyer from our Walmart Foundation were involved in the training—both of their names were in the folder I received from John. Years earlier, they had played a role in my life by contributing to the 9/11 attacks.
As we wrapped up the discussion around our table, we came back to Imani Dorsey, the young lady from the University of Portland who was obviously moved by the mention of the 9/11 topic. She regained her composure and shared the following, “My mom was in the plane that hit your building”.
My story and my experiences suddenly became nothing. I went home to my family that day. Susan and I cried as we hugged. I was thankful I got to come home.
Dora Menchaca, 45, Santa Monica, California, Associate Director of Clinical Research, Amgen Inc did not come home to her family that day. You can read more about her here:
When I think about 9/11, I think about Dora and I think about Imani. Sure, my life was changed—but nothing like those who lost loved ones.
Life is fragile. Never forget those who lost their lives on 9/11.
Where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?
December 2018 update.
Our neighbor in Bentonville AR was a Naval Reserve Officer and at one point I worked for him at Walmart. Over time, he was promoted to Vice Admiral (3-star) and currently serves as the Chief of the Naval Reserve and Commander of the Navy Reserve Force. He and his wife are stationed at the Pentagon.
In Dec 2018 we were invited to Luke and Leanna’s daughter’s wedding. While there, Luke arranged for an in depth tour of the Pentagon with one of his senior staffers, Navy Captain Eddie Pilcher. Eddie took us places that I had never been in the building. We went to ground zero and we also went by my former office.
My friend who I walked home with that day (now Colonel) Paul Nosek was stationed there. We met at the days end and shared a few memories.
Ron Allen (now Brigadier General) joined us for lunch. We rode to work together for most of our two years in DC (and on September 11, 2001) and continue to be close friends today.
Finally, I was able to visit the memorial and found Dora’s bench.
Colonel Paul Nosek. My office mate on 9/11/01
Dora Menchaca’s bench. A humbling moment. ￼
Brigadier General Ron Allen. Fellow Arkansan and outstanding leader.