Former Chairman Myers Recalls 9/11 Pentagon Attack
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 9, 2011 Afghanistan was not a part of any of the discussions Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers had with legislators as he readied for Senate confirmation on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Weeks earlier, then-President George W. Bush had nominated Myers, a Vietnam veteran, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That morning Myers, who was then serving as the Joint Chiefs’ vice chairman -- anticipated a typical set of get-acquainted meetings with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It was just another normal Washington day.
For Myers, that changed during a meeting with Georgia Sen. Max Cleland. “It was just before nine when I walked in to Senator Cleland’s office, and the first tower had been hit,” Myers said during a recent interview. “It was a glorious fall day … a beautiful, crisp day, and I thought, ‘Man. Some pilot had to be an idiot to run into that building.’”
First reports indicated that it was a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center. “A couple of minutes into the meeting, one of the aides came in and said the second building had been hit,” Myers said. “At that point, we knew something else was up.”
Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was halfway across the Atlantic on his way to NATO meetings. Myers’ secure phone rang and it was Air Force Gen. Ralph E. “Ed” Eberhart, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Eberhart told Myers that the situation in the air was confused.
“He told me that there were aircraft ‘squawking’ that they had been hijacked and that he was going to land them all at the nearest suitable base to sort it out,” Myers said. NORAD and the Federal Aviation Agency cleared the air over the United States.
Myers said his first thoughts at that time were: “Who did this?” and “What’s next?”
“As we were leaving Capitol Hill … we got the word that the Pentagon had been hit also,” Myers said. “We knew we were under attack, but we did not know by whom. That would follow shortly.”
His first instinct was to get back to the Pentagon to the National Military Command Center as quickly as possible. Myers described the view of the Pentagon as he crossed the 14th Street Bridge back to Virginia as surreal.
“The sight of smoke and flames coming from the Pentagon was like a very bad movie,” he said. “I remember pinching myself to make sure I was awake. [I was wondering] if I’m in a dream here?”
As Myers’ car approached the Pentagon, thousands of service members and civilian employees were streaming out of the building. “We were fighting our way up the stream, as people were coming out, trying to get to the National Military Command Center, which was up and running,” he said.
As the team worked in the NMCC, acrid smoke filled the rooms. Navy Vice Adm. Ed Giambastiani, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s senior military assistant, wondered aloud if they might have to evacuate the center.
“He’s a submariner [and] certainly knew something about air quality,” Myers said.
Giambastiani called the fire department and they took air quality readings.
“It was right on the line of unhealthy and we moved to a higher set of offices, but the work never stopped,” Myers said.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, skulking in safe havens in Afghanistan, was the evil mastermind behind the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon. President Bush told all on a conference call that they needed to do something quickly and meaningful.
“Then we were confronted by the fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country and our relationships with the nations of the region -- Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan -- were not robust,” he said. “We knew we would be asking them for a lot of help -- especially on the logistics side.”
The response planning began that day, with fires still burning on the other side of the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld and Myers went out in the late afternoon to see the point of impact.
“I was impressed that more of the building hadn’t collapsed,” Myers said. Some of the heavier parts of the airliner -- the landing gear, the engines -- were still recognizable, he said. Myers also was inspired by the acts of courage of those who helped to rescue and tend to the injured.
That night, there was a press conference from the Pentagon.
“To have a press conference from the building that had been attacked sent the message that even though we had been attacked, and people lost their lives, nevertheless we were open for business,” Myers said.
From that day forward, Myers said his mission was clear: “How do we protect the American people? How do we protect the American military so they can respond appropriately.”
Myers served as chairman until Sept. 30, 2005. His time in office was dominated by countering the threats posed by extremist groups and their malevolent designs on America.
“There was a certain sense of completion,” Myers said, when he’d heard that Navy SEALs had killed bin Laden in his hideaway in Pakistan.
“During my four years as chairman, one of the things we were always trying to do was find bin Laden’s whereabouts and bring him to justice,” Myers said.
Myers called President Barack Obama’s decision to go into Pakistan after the al-Qaida leader a bold act. “There was some risk there,” he said.
Still, the death of bin Laden is not the end of the fight.
“There are still more men and women today who want to join jihad,” Myers said. “We have to find a way to mitigate that. The threat is still very serious, and killing bin Laden doesn’t change that.”
At the end of the day on 9/11, Myers said he went to his Pentagon office to put on his service jacket.
“It smelled of smoke from all the fires in the building, and I remember thinking that I better take it home and get it cleaned,” Myers said. “But then I thought, ‘No, I’m going to leave it just like it is, so that smoky smell will be with me and will conjure up the memories of how I felt this day.’”