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Deputy Secretary: 9/11 Changed America Forever

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2006 – Five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England views them over the course of three distinct days he said forever changed America: one day the country celebrated its greatness, the next, that greatness came under attack, and the third day, the nation began striking back.

On Sept. 10, 2001, England, then secretary of the Navy, joined President Bush to host Australian Prime Minister John Howard on a tour of the Washington Navy Yard. It was a day of pomp and circumstance, with flags, bands, speeches and marches, England recalled during a recent interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.

Looking back, England said he thinks of Sept. 10 as “the last day of normalcy” before the next day’s attacks.

That normalcy was shattered in the early-morning hours of Sept. 11, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon and a commercial jet commandeered by terrorists crashed in Somerset County, Pa.

England had traveled to Forth, Texas, the previous night to deliver a speech and was flying back to the Pentagon when he got word of the terrorist attacks.

England noticed F-15 Eagle fighter jets escorting his Navy plane, one of the few aircraft in the U.S. still flying at the time, he later learned. As the plane approached Andrews Air Force Base, Md., F-16 Fighting Falcon jets took over the escort mission until England’s jet landed.

Once on the ground, England heard more of the grim news. The attack on the Pentagon had wiped out the Navy’s new command center and, with it, every one of its employees.

But England’s time for mourning would come later. He hurried to a hastily assembled command center at the Navy Yard, where he and his staff monitored the unfolding events.

The next evening, Bush arrived at the Pentagon to meet with key defense officials, including England. There, with parts of the building still burning, smoke weighing heavy in the air, flashing lights outside and sirens still going off intermittently, the president painted a picture of what the attacks meant for the country.

“He looked around the room and told everybody, ‘I will never forget what happened,’” England recalled. Bush then began pointing around the room, telling those assembled that they can’t forget these events. Bush reminded those in the room that “we are charged with the safety and the security of the United States of America,” England said.

“He said, ‘Get ready,’” England recalled. The president told the group the U.S. response would require all aspects of national power -- diplomatic, economic and military -- and that the military aspect must succeed for the others to work.

“He also said this is not going to be a short fight … (and) is … not going to be quick and easy,” England said. Bush compared fighting terrorism to removing a cancer, rather than a mole, and told the group to “be prepared for a long war.”

The message Bush delivered that day has proven to be right on the mark, England said. “The president knew immediately and instinctively what the situation was,” he said. “His instincts were absolutely correct on 9/12, and he has never wavered one bit.”

Five years later, England, now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, said Sept. 11 has left an indelible impression on the Pentagon, the Defense Department and U.S. armed forces.

He said he marvels at the commitment men and women in uniform demonstrate as they confront the enemy that attacked U.S. shores on Sept. 11.

“The men and women in uniform … know exactly why they serve,” he said. “And particularly if you go over to Iraq or Afghanistan, people know exactly why they are there. They know that this is about defeating terrorism, and they know that we would rather have the fight there than here.”

England compared today’s military members to those of previous generations who served the country when its freedom was threatened. “If you go back 230 years, at times of great need and danger to the country, Americans have stepped forward from all walks of life to protect and defend the country,” he said.

They did so, not just for themselves and their fellow citizens, but for future generations, he said. “And that is where we are today; all these great Americans have stepped forward to serve,” he said.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, England said he still gets asked occasionally why the United States is fighting the terror war. He said he quickly reminds people that the U.S. never chose to go to war.

“America was attacked,” he said. “This was a war brought to our shores. … We are in this war whether we want to be or not. … And we need to win this war.”

England said it’s important that the nation remember the events of Sept. 11 and the message it sent the United States.

“It’s important to remember what happened the day (and the fact that) close to 3,000 people died,” he said. “And the reason (terrorists) killed 3,000 people that day is because they didn’t know how to kill 30,000 or 300,000 or 3 million. But if they had known how to, … they would have.

“And they are still trying,” England said. “That’s why you can never forget 9/11, and that is why we are in this long war on terrorism.”

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