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Pentagon’s Crash-Site Memorial Inspires Remembrance

By Ensign John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2006 – They were young and old, college students and retirees, rural visitors and city natives, government employees and private-sector workers, uniformed military personnel and civilians, black and white, Asian and Hispanic; but they all shared a common sense of purpose today.

They all wanted to see the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial. They all wanted to pay tribute to the memory and cause of those who died, on Sept. 11, 2001.

For only the second time, Pentagon officials today allowed the general public access to the building’s memorial to the 184 people killed when American Airlines flight 77 hit the building.

“It was a really good feeling here -- just kind of a feeling of sadness, but it also made me proud to be an American,” said Kate Leavitt, of Boise, Idaho. “It drove home that it (the attacks) really happened, but we’re still persevering. We’re still a strong country.”

“I probably won’t be asked to give my life, you know, die for my country, but I can give my life and live for my country -- and do things to make America stronger,” added Logan Schultz, of Livonia, Michigan.

Leavitt and Schultz were two of more than a dozen college students from Brigham Young University who visited the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial today. The students are interning this fall in Washington D.C. and, like most attendees, heard about this rare public viewing of the memorial on the news.

The Pentagon’s American Heroes Memorial and chapel were built at the point where flight 77 hit the building. They have been made available for public viewing just once before, on the fourth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Military escorts ushered in small groups of a dozen or so visitors each to see the memorial. The escorts said they anticipated that as many as 6,000 people might have visited the site today.

“Most people are shocked when they see it -- the size of the building and the extent of the damage,” said tour guide Army Spc. Kyle Engel, of New Orleans.

“It’s kind of somber, but I think this is a very good thing,” said tour guide Army Sgt. Lucas Peterson, of Wallace, Michigan. “I think it should be open so people can see this section. They should see how we’re memorializing our heroes: because, you know, the victims of 9/11 are heroes.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Joshua Tretter, of Paris, Illinois, and a veteran of three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed. “It brings it a lot closer to home, especially for the family members,” he said. “I’ve gotten to talk with many family members. … Some just cry; some don’t even want to see it at all. So it’s definitely moving for myself.”

One of those family members, John Ramsaur, was there today to honor the memory of his deceased wife, Debbie, who worked in the Pentagon as an Army civilian. Debbie was killed that day, but John, his new wife, Sue, and their three children -- 12-year-old Ann, 10-year-old Zoe, and 10-year-old Brian -- all make regular pilgrimages to her grave site at Arlington National Cemetery and to the Pentagon.

“We’ve been here almost every year, either for a ceremony or just to visit,” he said. “We’ll always remember.”

Bob, Dolores and Kylynn Wisniewski, likewise, will always remember that day. Kylynn worked in the Pentagon as a civilian computer specialist. Her mother, Dolores, recalls vividly waiting in anguish for three hours not knowing what had become of her daughter. “It was awful, just awful, because nobody knew anything, and nothing worked, no cell phones or anything,” Dolores said.

Kylynn has since retired. The memorial was “very moving to me, since I was there,” she said. “We support our people, and we stand our ground,” she added.

The memorial site includes a charred black stone set into the restored building and inscribed “September 11, 2001.” The stone remains charred black from the fires that were ignited by jet fuel. Behind the stone lies a time capsule to commemorate victims of the attack here.

“Just seeing that blackened brick -- it just makes you want to cry,” said Michelle Webber, a native of Cambridge, England, but now an American citizen who calls North Carolina home. Webber was visiting Washington, D.C. with her husband, Eric, and 5-year-old son, Ethan.

“You know, these people died so that they could give us freedom and a safe place to live. And this is where everybody works that keeps us safe and gives us freedom. And that’s a really important thing. Not everybody has that,” she said. “I feel very privileged to have seen that (memorial) knowing that not everybody’s going to be able to see it. … It’s so moving.”

A public Pentagon Memorial with 184 benches and underlying reflecting pools also is being constructed. The benches will be sized and situated differently to correspond with the ages of each airline passenger or Pentagon worker. The 184 victims ranged from 3 to 76 years old. Groundbreaking on the outside memorial began in June; the project is scheduled for completion in spring 2007. The non-profit Pentagon Memorial Fund has raised $11 million of the $17 million required to complete the memorial, tour guides said.

The American Heroes Memorial inside the building records all 184 names on tablets on the walls. A book in front of the tablets provides a picture and short biography of each victim, written by surviving family members. Another book allows visitors to record their condolences for the families and thoughts on visiting the site.

The American Heroes Memorial also includes separate tablets for the Purple Heart and Defense of Freedom medals, which were awarded posthumously to those who died in the attack. The Purple Heart is awarded to American servicemen and women killed or injured in a conflict; the Defense of Freedom is the civilian counterpart to the Purple Heart.

“I’d never seen a Purple Heart before and didn’t understand the significance behind it,” said Eric Hafen, a Washington, D.C.-area intern from Brigham Young University. “And the chapel, where we could all come to honor them and to honor our God, in the same place, right there where the plane crashed -- I thought that was nicely done.”

The chapel adjacent to the memorial includes stained glass windows, one of which has 184 pieces of red glass, all of which surround a small pentagon.

The stained glass windows include depictions of an eagle and a broken heart and parts of the military service oath: ‘Support and defend … so help me God.”

“I’m not in the military, but what I can do is show that I support our troops,” said Francis Ward, a software consultant from Alexandria, Va.. “Just coming here and saying a couple of thoughtful prayers for the people who lost their lives, to support our troops -- that’s why I’m here.”

Francis Ward’s wife, Jill Forbes, 46, agreed. Sept. 11, 2001, is “always on my mind. I just thought it was a great privilege that we were able to come here.”

Logan Schultz, the Brigham Young student, compared the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York.

“When I saw ground zero, it left a huge pit in my stomach. ‘What happened here?’ I thought. But being here, I see more of the healing part of all this. This memorial emphasizes more that life is continuing, and that we remember the past to help us learn for the future. It’s inspiring.”

Elizabeth Watts, 38, a nurse visiting from Vale, Oregon, was amazed by the size of the Pentagon and its 23,000-strong workforce.

“More people work in this building than there are in my town and surrounding areas. … A traffic jam for us is a rancher herding cows across the road!” she said. “That’s definitely not like the Pentagon!”

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