Retired Navy Doctor Recalls Pentagon 9/11 Attack
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2011 Ten years after the fact, retired Navy Capt. Stephen Frost surprises himself when his voice chokes up with emotion describing the horrific events of 9/11.
Retired Navy Capt. Stephen Frost, pictured here shortly after the 9/11 attacks, said his experience as a first responder at the Pentagon 10 years ago has shaped his outlook on life and his commitment to military men and women who continue the fight against terrorism. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A retired Navy Reserve doctor who had been recalled to active duty, Frost had been on the job just 10 days as a liaison to the chief of the Navy Medical Corps when American Airlines Flight 77 exploded into the Pentagon.
Frost remembers sitting inside the Pentagon, on a bench outside the Naval Reserve Affairs office, awaiting an introductory meeting that would set the tone for his next three years of service.
Suddenly, a group of people rushed down the hallway.
“You can tell when people are scared and when they are very serious about getting out of the building,” he said. “These people were very, very serious.”
Frost and a coworker, Dr. John Feerick, followed the crowd to the nearest door, taking in for the first time the thick plume of dark smoke rising from the other side of the building.
“Nobody really knew what was going on at that point,” he said.
But Frost’s medical training immediately kicked in. Minutes after a security guard pointed him to the impact area, he took off running through the smoke searching for injured victims. There, beneath a gaping black hole in the building, beside the sheared-off light posts and debris from the aircraft and building, lay the wounded, many with severe burns and traumatic injuries.
Describing the scene shortly after the attacks for a Navy oral history, Frost recalled the extent of their wounds. “We saw blast injuries, people with swollen faces and reddened skin and severe burns,” he said. “The burns were the worst part.”
Looking back, Frost said much of the chain of events has become a blur. He remembers someone arriving from out of nowhere with IV bags, which he set up for the injured. After the first responders arrived, Frost set up a triage center in a tunnel beneath a nearby interstate, where he worked 24 hours straight treating the wounded.
“In medical training, you prepare for disasters. And in the service, you are supposed to be prepared for wartime events and do a lot of simulated training,” Frost said. “But when you are in this stuff, it becomes surreal. You just focus on what you are doing and you blot out everything else.
“But the training was there,” he said. “And it really allowed me to react.”
Working through the night, Frost said he never learned about the World Trade Center attacks until he was able to call in to the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine the next morning.
Frost said his 9/11 experience changed him forever. And by his own account, for the better.
“I think that whenever something like that comes so close to endangering your life, and you see how quickly life can be ended for people who never expected it, and you realize how fragile life is,” he said. “You remember that life can be really short, and you have to live every day.”
Frost not only served out the rest of his three-year active duty tour, he extended his duty for another seven years, finally hanging up his uniform for good in February 2010.
Now Frost works as director for the Defense Department’s Human Performance Resource Center in Bethesda, Md. The center, which stood up in 2009 as part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, explores ways to optimize human performance, particularly in warfighting situations.
On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Frost recognizes that many Americans are tired of war and sacrifice.
“I think people forget how horrific those attacks were,” he said, and the importance of ensuring the United States never experiences another 9/11 attack.
“The memory of 9/11, unless you were there, isn’t strong enough for some people to continue that resolution to wipe out terrorism, not just in this country, but in the world,” he said.
Meanwhile, Frost said he’s taken the pain and suffering of 9/11 and learned to use it to optimize his own life. He’s taken up scuba diving and white-water rafting. He volunteered his services for the National Park Service.
“What I’ve learned [since 9/11] is that you have to make sure you are happy, and you are responsible for making yourself happy,” he said. “Life is too short not to enjoy it.”