Retired Colonel Reflects on Sept. 11 Attack on Pentagon
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2003 Air Force Col. Diana Fleek sat alone on the Pentagon parade field among hundreds of gray metal chairs left empty by throngs of people who had just attended the Oct. 11, 2001, one-month anniversary of the terrorist attack on the nation.
At the time, Fleek said she was pensively reflecting on the evil of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed and wounded thousands of innocent people at New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in a plane crash in Pennsylvania.
Remaining in her seat after everybody else departed was, Fleek said, her way of showing "the utmost respect and reflection for the lives lost, their families, the hundreds of friends, (and) the incredible acts of bravery, heroism and compassion that followed."
She was thinking about how appreciative she is of the folks who lost their lives in the attack. "Not just in the Pentagon," said Fleek, "but in the Twin Towers World Trade Center in New York, and the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania, too.
"By appreciative, I mean that an entire act is hope to the rest of the world," said the now-retired former DoD Reserve Affairs deputy director of the innovative readiness training programs for Guard, Reserve and active duty forces.
Fleek said now in 2003 she has a little bit of a different take on the tragedy that galvanized the nation. She retired from the Air Force in February 2002 and now lives in Texas on her horse-breeding ranch.
"I think that the people whose lives were lost that day were people that knew there was a destiny and purpose for their lives," said the colonel-turned- cowgirl. She's now "living, working and playing" on her horse-breeding ranch near the Texas A&M college town of Commerce with her daughter, Jessica.
Noting that she doesn't want to lose sight of that thought, Fleek said memorial services should celebrate people's lives, not mourn their deaths. "I feel very spiritual about the folks who died in the Pentagon," she said.
They didn't die because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Fleek said. "They were in the right place at the right time," she noted. "That's what I think we should celebrate for them. They were exactly where they wanted to be.
"All of humanity understands the good of the whole," she noted. "When we stay very narrow-minded, life and death are not a continuum, but a finality. Then we don't appreciate the fact that there was a great sacrifice that these people made for the good of the whole.
"(Secretary of Defense Donald H.) Rumsfeld said out of great evil comes great good. That's a wake-up call for the world," she pointed out.
When the airliner crashed into the Pentagon, Fleek was on the phone with her daughter, who was at their new home in Texas. She and members of her former office staff were lucky people. They'd moved out of harm's way shortly before Sept. 11.
"We'd moved to the second wedge of the Pentagon four weeks earlier," Fleek noted. "As a matter of fact, the airplane's cockpit took the place of our former offices."
In an interview after the attack, Fleek said, "We knew we had been hit, but we didn't know what it was -- we just knew there was an explosion. We all felt it quite literally. The building shook, and the windows rattled. Thousands were evacuated. It was done very quickly and very orderly.
"As we looked over our shoulders, all we could see was a huge black ball of smoke, moving eastward, coming at us," she continued. "Then we heard the rumble of a jet above us, and looked up to see an F-16 pass over the Pentagon. Those fighters up there brought a rush of emotions in our hearts and had a tremendous effect on everyone. I couldn't have been prouder to be an Air Force officer. It was an incredible moment in time, and I'll never forget it."
In another interview last week, Fleek said she was in "complete disbelief that someone would be so naive to think that they could penetrate the structure of the building or the will of the people housed in it."
Sitting alone among hundreds of empty chairs "was an opportune time to make a personal pledge - never forget the destructive power of hatred and prejudice and to move forward with a greater determination to create value, every day, somehow," said Fleet.
"I wanted to deeply internalize my feelings," she continued. "Those people's lives were not wasted. Our nation now had the opportunity to be the Phoenix rising up out of the ashes."
She has since reunited with her daughter and family, as well as friends all over the world. Fleek has taken up scuba diving and snow skiing again, and said she is loving the new business of breaking, training and showing quarter horse colts.
She said she's also been appointed to a regional leadership position in a worldwide group serving as a nongovernmental organization of the United Nations. Fleek, who has spoken several times at local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars events, said people have a tendency to introduce her as the colonel who "was in the Pentagon on 9-11."
Asked if her thoughts have changed during the past two years, Fleek said, "Absolutely not!" Referring to the nation's response to the 9-11 attacks, she noted, "The revolution of a nation begins with individuals. That's the law of cause and effect."