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A communicator’s story on the morning of September 11, 2001

The garrison flag is hung from the still smoldering Pentagon by service members and firefighters. (DoD photo) The garrison flag is hung from the still smoldering Pentagon by service members and firefighters. (DoD photo)

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There are few incidents in a lifetime that occur where you remember the exact details of a specific event that changed the course of history and left an indelible mark on those who experienced it.  For many of the “Greatest Generation” that event occurred almost 75 years ago when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Some recall the exact moment they heard President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. But for many of us, that impactful moment of our lives occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001 when four hijacked commercial aircraft hit the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was an incredible day that impacted every American. 

So this week as the nation remembers and commemorates the 15 years since the attack on our country, the Strategic Communications Team of the Military Health System (MHS) will recount for you a series of stories and personal experiences of that morning, and the courage many faced and responded to on that horrible day.  Over the course of this week, leading up to September 11th, we will highlight those working in the MHS today who remember that moment in time and we will highlight the positive changes made within the MHS resulting from that morning 15 years ago this Sunday.

That morning, I was assigned as the Director of Public Affairs for the United States Army Military District of Washington, headquartered at Fort Leslie J. McNair in Washington, D.C. The number one mission of that command is to provide ceremonial support for the numerous events within the National Capital Region (NCR). But, many might not know one of their missions at that time was to provide a security force for the NCR in times of crisis in support of our nation’s leaders.

While not a member of the MHS until 2012, I observed countless acts of courage, teamwork and selfless service. My team was responsible for the media, communications and outreach events on the grounds of the Pentagon for the first three weeks after the attack, and I served as the command spokesperson. Over that period of time, we told more than 3,000 stories to more than 400 media parked at the former Navy Exchange Gas Station which was located at the base of where the Air Force Memorial stands today.

On September 11, 2001, the Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps were practicing for an outreach show called, “The Spirit of America,” scheduled for performances in Columbus, Ohio and Washington, D.C. in two weeks. Immediately after the attack, they were marshalled to the grounds of the Pentagon where they supported securing the area, providing onsite command and control, and began the tedious task of search and rescue inside the walls where American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.

On those grounds, everyone became a medic where injured lay waiting for medical assistance, comforted by their fellow workers. Clinicians from the Dilorenzo TRICARE Health Clinic, inside the Pentagon, were immediately outside rendering aid to those injured. Countless stories of heroism have been told of people helping people escape the fire and smoke that spread throughout the building. And medical personnel assigned to my command, immediately arrived on site to render critical and timely assistance.

Over the next three weeks, my team participated in telling the stories of Soldiers and their role on those grounds, prepared the MDW Commander for twice daily press conferences, conducted countless live interviews, produced internal news stories, documented daily activities and events on still and video for historical purposes, participated in the memorial service on the grounds of the World Trade Center in New York and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., conducted media training to the New York National Guard in lower Manhattan and conducted VIP briefings to congressional leaders, visiting dignitaries and the President of the United States on a make shift briefing center 50 meters from the attack. We captured the posting of the garrison flag hung from the still smoldering building and the retreat ceremony where the Pentagon grounds were returned to the management of Arlington County authorities.

On the evening of Saturday, September 15th, family members of those killed in the crash, were bussed from a hotel in Crystal City, Virginia to an area near the crash site at the Pentagon where for the first time, they saw the damage. On site with them were a number of military nurses and counselors helping them and supporting them with the reality they saw before their eyes. It was an incredible moment. And while clinicians and supporters provided constant support, we continued to tell the story until our commander relinquished control of the site three weeks after the attack.

On Saturday, October 6th, the United States Army Band conducted a concert for first responders and their families to a packed house at the Lincoln Center in New York City preceded by a performance on The Today Show the previous morning. We covered every funeral at Arlington National Ceremony over the next several months and continued to tell stories of heroism and valor to internal and external audiences.

The nation became one family that day and 15 years later, I am proud to lead a team of communications professionals committed to telling the story of the members of the MHS, who are so instrumental to the readiness of our Armed Forces and the health and welfare of more than 9.4 million beneficiaries. Thank you all for what you do around the globe and the advances you have made in medicine since that difficult day in our nation’s history. You have clearly made a difference.

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