Remarks by Secretary Panetta at the Breakfast for Northern Virginia First Responders at the Ritz Carlton, Arlington, Virginia
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much. It's a -- it's a true privilege for me to have the opportunity to be here. Jim Moran, a colleague of mine in the Congress, good to see you. And Chris, Chris Matthews and Kathleen, good to see you. Chris Matthews and I go back to when I was first elected to Congress in '76. Chris Matthews was running around the floor on behalf of Tip O'Neill, working for him. So we go back a long way, and a lot of great memories from those days as well.
We come together to remember 9/11 and the events around 9/11. And the memories of 9/11 are obviously seared into all of our memories. And I know for all of you here in particular, you live with those memories every day.
For me, you know, in some ways 10 years ago -- I've kind of come full circle. I mean, of course, the last damn thing I thought I would be was be secretary of defense. But at -- on those days I was on Capitol Hill. And I wasn't in government at the time, but I'd come back to brief a group of members of Congress on some issues that I'd been involved with and working on a commission.
And a member of that commission leaned over to me at the time -- and she had an office in New York City -- and they had sent a message to her that the Trade Towers had been attacked, and she leaned over and said that to me. And I, in turn, looked at the members of Congress and said, look, we've just got word that there's been a terrorist attack in New York City and, you know, this is -- this is going to be a day that I think we're going to long remember; I remember saying that. And everybody in the room kind of made this spontaneous decision that it -- we'd better get the hell out of there. And the members left and I left, and I jumped in a car. And as I was driving away from the Capitol, got word that another plane had hit the Pentagon.
And now 10 years later to be secretary of defense and to have the opportunity to walk over to the memorial at the Pentagon and to the chapel that was built there where the plane went into the Pentagon, and attend mass there; and having, as director of the CIA -- I had the responsibility to continue the effort to go after al-Qaida and have the honor and pride to have been a part of the operation that brought down bin Laden. And now to be secretary, to see all of that circle that over these last 10 years, has been a remarkable experience for me.
And that's why this is -- this is a particular privilege to be able to come here and look at all of you and thank you for the bravery and courage that many of you showed on that horrific scene that took place at the Pentagon.
Let me first of all, as secretary of defense, on behalf of the entire Department of Defense, thank you. Thank you for your courage and thank you for your saving efforts -- that day and, very frankly, every day. The explosions that took place when Flight 77 went into the Pentagon -- and you can still see some of the scorched results of what happened that day -- I think it triggered probably the worst and most complex disaster that any of us could imagine.
While thousands fled the scene, the first responders did not have that ability to flee. They had to go into the scene. They had to go towards the black smoke to respond and to try to save lives. And in doing that, you put your lives on the line to try to rescue your fellow citizens, and you will forever be recognized as heroes for what you did.
First responders -- and I know something about it because in my family, I had two of my nephews who were cops, and others were involved in first responders and as volunteer firemen -- first responders are the ones that determine life and death in some ways. You provide the essential comfort, you provide care, you provide treatment for injured survivors. And you have to face the threats that are involved in that effort to try to save others' lives. The burns, the devastating injuries demand immediate attention.
And for 36 exhausting hours, firefighters battled what was truly an epic blaze. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like when all of that air fuel turns to fire. Trying to conduct a search, trying to do a rescue operation in that kind of situation is absolutely incredible.
The first on the scene who entered the Pentagon had no idea how that fire had spread and whether the building's structural integrity would in fact hold. In their determination to battle the blaze and share -- try to shore the building up, firefighters recognized that beyond the necessity of saving lives, it was vitally important to try to keep the Pentagon working so that our military could respond and protect the country, and respond to those that had attacked this nation.
So it was kind of a combination of roles to try to not only save the people that had been injured but to try to see what could be done to try to keep the Pentagon operating. All of these efforts took place, as I said, amid a scene of unimaginable chaos, and with reports of possible further attacks triggering even greater evacuation and greater panic.
As the entire nation comes together this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the American people I think will forever remember the scenes of courage and caring that personify our national character. And the people who attacked us on 9/11 were trying to weaken America, were trying to hurt America -- and instead they strengthened us, because you don't mess with this country when you attack us. And what we made clear is that when that happens, we will come and get you.
This country unified as a result of what happened. I didn't mention this, but when I was stuck in Washington that day, I finally was able to -- like thousands of others couldn't get out of this town -- I finally rented a car and drove. I decided I had to get -- rent a car and get back home, so I rented a car, drove across country to get back to California.
And not only did I do that in record time -- but I have to tell you, what I witnessed that day driving across the country is something that's also seared into my memory, because what I witnessed was this country coming together. As I was driving across the country, there were signs coming up, "God bless America," there were flags that people were putting up; people going to churches, people holding hands. You could see this country coming together to try to confront what had happened. And it did -- it brought this country together in a way that is most reflected by people like you who put your lives on the line every day and it's reflected by the people that I represent in the military, men and women who put their lives on the line every day in the service of this country. The greatest thing this country has are people who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect others.
Even as we take this moment to obviously thank all of you for these heroic efforts, I want you to know how much I appreciate the work that you do every day. Thanks to you, we really can work and live in the safety and knowledge that in the event of an emergency, you're going to be there to help us.
As I said, the mission of the military -- and I see it when I go abroad, and I see it in the faces of the people that I deal with every day at the Pentagon -- these are people who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to save others. And you share that mission, because all of you are willing to put your lives on the line in order to save others. And in my book, that makes you part of our family. And that's the reason that I am here, is to thank you for being part of our family, the American family, to thank you for your dedication, to thank you for your courage, and most of all to thank you for your patriotism. God bless you.