One Year After: Pentagon People, Others, Discuss 9-11
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2002 When a hijacked airliner destroyed 184 innocent lives here a year ago today, life at the Pentagon became horribly surreal for victims' families and the building's military and civilian employees.
The old, battered western facade, scarred by licking flames and searing smoke, was demolished. Today, the Pentagon has a brand-new, bright limestone wall. Gone, too, are the confused cries, screaming sirens -- and death.
Before attending, or viewing, the one-year anniversary observance ceremony of the attack, some Pentagon and non-Pentagon employees took time to share their feelings.
Anthony Hudson, a 27-year-old electrical contractor from Virginia Beach, Va., was sitting in the Pentagon's center courtyard early this morning, hours before the ceremony.
Today, Hudson wears a hard-hat topped by an American flag and is a Pentagon contractor working on a cafeteria-remodeling project. But, a year ago he was in Virginia Beach, Va., watching the second airliner hit the World Trade Center on television during a work break.
"A few minutes later I heard about the Pentagon," he said. "That's when it all started to come clear to me … something was happening.
"Obviously, everything is different, now," Hudson remarked, pointing out the attacks have caused Americans to look over their shoulders in anticipation of other attacks.
"It's going to be that way and is something we're just going to have to deal with," he emphasized.
Green-shirted Hilton Hotel employees from Alexandria, Va., bearing small paper American flags, greeted Pentagon workers arriving for the observance ceremony this morning. Hilton employee Renee Besanson, 31, explained that her general manager ordered up 100,000 of these flags to give out at the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other area locations.
"We're just trying to give back to all the men and women that support the country and all the hard work that they do," Besanson said.
Last year, she said, she saw smoke coming from the Pentagon from her hotel four miles away.
"It was scary. I felt very vulnerable," she noted. A year later, Besanson thinks, "The country really has come together as a whole."
The threat of terrorism "is not something that's going to be able to be fixed overnight. … It's going to take years."
Former soldier Donald Patterson, 49, drove from New Jersey to attend the anniversary ceremony, only to find that he lacked a ticket to get in. He noted that his wife's first cousin, Army Lt. Col. Karen J. Wagner, died in the Pentagon attack.
"I just felt that I needed to be here," Patterson explained as he stood outside the Pentagon holding an American flag. "Although I've been out of the service for awhile, I'm still a veteran, a United States citizen."
He called the terrorist attacks on America and the ensuring war a tragedy.
"Why are they so irritated with America? Why don't they sit down to the table and talk about what the problems are? Why choose violence and kill innocent people – including children?" he asked.
However, Patterson emphasized that America had no choice but to attack terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan.
"When someone strikes at you and kills, you have to retaliate," he remarked. A self-described "God-fearing man," he expressed the hope that "things could be resolved (peacefully) before there's more killing."
Yet first, "We need to stamp out this terrorism," he maintained.
At one end of the Pentagon's Concourse, a block-long indoor shopping area, at least 150 military and civilians watched two television monitors, one large, one smaller, as the observance ceremony began.
Washington Headquarters Services human resource specialist Sylvia Dudley had earlier been wiping away tears as she viewed pictures of the Pentagon attacks and other terrorist assaults on America a year ago.
Told to leave the Pentagon soon after the attack, Dudley made her way home, believing that a fire had been the reason for the building's evacuation.
"I had no idea what was happening. I was absolutely clueless until I got home," she said. Arriving home, Dudley checked her phone messages and discovered that the Pentagon had also been attacked.
"I was shocked, I just shut down. It was unbelievable," she said.
Both Dudley and Margaret Fisher, an Office of the Secretary of Defense policy office employee who sat next to Dudley during the indoor viewing, said it was difficult for them to come to work today. Both also decided to forgo the outdoor ceremony.
"It's just too much to deal with," Dudley said.
"Too emotional," Fisher added, as she, too, dabbed at tears. It was unsettling, she noted, just "seeing all these pictures reminding you of what happened a year ago."
Army psychiatrist Dr. (Lt. Col.) Dermot Cotter emphasized that different people react in different ways to trauma.
"What is normal for one person may not be the same coping style that another person might think of as normal," he noted. "A lot of people are choosing to have their own private vigils, their own way of commemorating the event and remembering things."
However, he likened ceremonies such as today's Pentagon attack anniversary observance to "a healing phenomenon" that does a lot of good for a lot of people.
"It's good just to have a day of remembrance. … It's good for everybody, I think," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Holley, an noncommissioned officer who works in the Army's operations shop in the Pentagon.
A year after the attacks, day-to-day Pentagon operations seem to be going back to normal, Holley said. But "things still linger in the mind. You can tell," he added. "We still have to be aware of everything that's going on." The attacks, the NCO emphasized, "have changed everybody's lives."