On “11 Sep 01” I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. (Former military will recognize the dating convention.) For those unfamiliar with Andrews, it is in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington, DC and is most famous for housing Air Force One. “Ah, now it rings a bell,” you say.
I was in charge of our base’s alcohol and drug rehabilitation services, and 11 September started out an uneventful day like any other. The patients (in my business the more politically correct term is “clients”) had gone down for a smoke break. Almost all recovering addicts smoke. Go figure. They came back frantically instructing us to turn on the TV. An airplane had hit the World Trade Center. Needless to say, not much more rehabbing got done that day.
We were all, clients and staff, watching live as the second plane flew into the South Tower. What had been speculated about and suspected, terrorism, was confirmed. What happened after that could best be described as ordered chaos.
The base went on complete lock down. Threatcon delta, I believe, was the designation. No one could come or go. If I remember correctly, the hospital was also locked down. Neither patients nor staff could leave. I was able to contact my wife, who had been instructed by base police to stay inside, but cell phone communication was sporadic at best and many patients were unable to get in touch with loved ones—a fact which didn’t exactly help lower the anxiety level. Parents on the base were particularly frantic because they couldn’t get their children from the local schools. Thankfully, our kids were home schooled.
Rumors were rampant. One that seemed to linger for a while was that a bomb had gone off outside the Capitol. We were on the fourth floor and therefore had a good view of the surroundings. At one point we could see smoke rising in the distance. We all assumed this was the Capitol Building. Only later did we come to find out it was actually the Pentagon. In hindsight, I know this makes us all seem directionally challenged, but the circumstances did not lend themselves to thoughtful assessments of geography.
Unofficial rumors were everywhere and official direction was nearly absent—absent to the point of being eerie. As a shrink, I know that few things stress people more than a complete lack of direction. We all assumed that surely we were supposed to be doing something to help, but no one knew anything. The only directions we had were to stay put. So that’s what we did. Basically staring at each other in numb disbelief while fretting and speculating wildly that we would all be deployed within days, that somebody somewhere was going to get nuked. Then later you would hear someone announce, “I heard we are all going to be deployed.” Was this new information or the same old speculation?
I recall inadvertently contributing to the rumor mill. When the first tower collapsed—and my conspiracy theorist friends are going to eat this up—I recall saying to someone that there must have been some additional bombs planted in the building in order for it to collapse like that. My speculation was interpreted as something that had actually been reported, and that rumor spread like wildfire. When I realized what I had started, I consciously attempted to quell the rumor, explaining that it had not actually been reported. After that experience, I pretty much kept my mouth shut.
Eventually, the clients and non-essential personnel were allowed to leave. Medical personnel were not. We all awaited the onslaught of patients that we felt were sure to come our way from the Pentagon. But few ever did. Much to their credit, local civilian EMS and hospitals handled most of the Pentagon causalities. We did eventually get a few overflows, but they were the walking wounded. My services were never required.
All of the Mental Health Squadron eventually congregated in one large room where someone had rolled a TV. And we did what everyone else in America was doing at the time, sat with our attention focused on the news, eager for any new detail. Eventually we were released, instructed to stand by in case we were needed, or otherwise return the next day. My recollection is hazy, but some of our personnel might have been sent to the Pentagon overnight. Either way, I wasn’t one of them.
I returned the following day no less clueless as to what I was going to be doing than I had been the day before. I don’t exactly recall the time line, but at some point I was told that we needed a CISM team to respond to the Pentagon. CISM stands for Critical Incident Stress Management, a particular style of crisis response that, when employed, is alleged to cut down on the sequella of trauma such as PTSD. I had mixed emotions about this. I didn’t mind responding to the Pentagon, knowing that I would be witness to history first hand, but I was also, shall we say, a CISM non-believer. (9/11 came along as the CISM skeptics were gaining steam, but the situation did not lend itself to debating the fine points of the latest research. We did what we were tasked to do, but maybe not quite according to the book)
Our team arrived at the Pentagon, and I was first struck by how many people were there. To be honest, our presence was a bit redundant. People were getting in each other’s way. There were aid and crisis workers everywhere. There was food and drink everywhere (of which I happily availed myself). The local fire and rescue workers were handling their own debriefings, so we were left with not much, formally, to do. We took turns manning the Chaplain’s tent in case we were needed, and walking around making our presence known and offering our services if needed.
Rumor had it, and it was later confirmed, that President Bush was going to be stopping by to thank us. We were briefed by Secret Service—which was actually much more low key than I had anticipated. The briefing mainly consisted of “don’t make any sudden moves,” “don’t go for your pocket” and other such pearls. We formed a line that President Bush was going to walk by and shake our hands. All the people who were eager to tell their grandkids one day that they shook the President’s hand at the Pentagon on 12 September rather shamelessly crowded to the front of the line. Neither rank, nor height, nor any other rational way to form up a line seemed to matter. I know for a fact that one of the people endeavoring to get to the front of the line, and who did get to shake President Bush’s hand, was a Democrat. But I’m not bitter or anything.
The President passed within a few feet of me, along with Donald Rumsfeld and Condolezza Rice. But I didn’t get to shake his hand. For one, it would have required reaching over or around a few people, and I didn’t want to seem too eager. I had been stationed in Texas while he was Governor, and I never bought the whole Bush-as-conservative idea, anyway. And that whole “don’t make any sudden moves” advice from the Secret Service was still fresh in my mind. I thought snaking my arm through too many people might be a bit risky. My only regret in not getting to shake the President’s hand is that I now can’t say “I got to shake the President’s hand at the Pentagon” and instead have to give a long explanation like the one above as to why I didn’t.
Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld all had the same message. They were quietly thanking us for our service as was appropriate for the occasion. Bush in particular seemed very somber. There was none of the fanfare that you would normally see with a Presidential appearance.
In anticipation of the President’s visit, local firefighters and military personal famously unfurled a large US flag that then hung from the Pentagon near the site of the damage, a scene that was replayed endlessly on network and local news. My primary recollection of that event was that it had not gone quite as smoothly as the photo-ops had suggested. Apparently, there is some convention for this situation. The flag has to be hung a certain way. But on their first attempt it was facing the wrong way, so they had to pull it back up and do it again. This little blooper didn’t make the nightly news as far as I know.
My “12 Sep” experience at the Pentagon—and especially witnessing the unfurling of the flag—is something that I have been reluctant to share with many people because, frankly, it is the kind of thing I thought many people might not believe. “Sure you were there,” is an anticipated response. This is the first time I have shared it publicly, or—for that matter—much of my other recollections of 9/11.
I was not in favor of the war that followed. I left the military before retirement (though it would have probably been in my financial best interest to remain until then) because I did not support the mission. Of course as a physician I would have been a non-combatant, but it bothered me still.
For the record, I am no Johnny-come-lately to the non-interventionist position. I was a non-interventionist before Ron Paul made non-interventionism cool. I was a non-interventionist conservative before the War went bad and some conservatives started jumping ship. I opposed the First Gulf War and supported fellow non-interventionist Pat Buchanan in ’92 and ’96.
But that is an argument for another day. As we remember the victims of 9/11—and I would encourage us not to forget the often-neglected Pentagon victims—we can all put aside our differences on foreign policy for a season. May the victims rest in peace, and may God Bless the United States of America.