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Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks Remarks at 9/11 20th Anniversary – Pentagon Employee Observance Ceremony (As Prepared)

Thank you to Director Donley and Vice Chairman Hyten for your thoughtful remarks. Thank you all for joining me this morning. We are honored to have Governor and First Lady Northam, Senator Kaine, and Leader Hoyer joining us. And a special welcome to the 9/11 survivors who are with us this morning, as well as their families and friends.     

Twenty years after September 11, 2001, we gather to remember the innocent people who lost their lives during those horrific attacks. That includes 59 passengers and crew aboard Flight 77, as well as 125 of our own colleagues, friends, and loved ones. We honor those who were wounded, including those still bearing invisible wounds.  And we hope to comfort their families, friends, and loved ones.  

Even as we collectively gather, it is fitting to acknowledge there is something personal about 9/11. Almost everyone of a certain age remembers where they were that Tuesday morning. We each have our 9/11 story.      

For me, I was right here in the Pentagon. I was working as the Deputy Director for Resources in the Office of the Under Secretary for Policy.

The beginning of the day was like any other. I took the bus in with my son and dropped him off at the Pentagon’s Child Care Center in North Parking, before heading to the B-Ring, somewhere between the 8th and 9th corridors.  

I sat down at my desk and remember firing up my computers and beginning to check email. One of my officemates had a radio in her office. After Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., she plugged in the TV we had on a mobile cart and we gathered around it to watch in horror. Approximately 17 minutes later, we saw Flight 175 hit the South Tower.   

As we huddled around that television, we were upset and confused. Why would someone do such a thing?

I remember that same officemate commented that she was surprised such an event had occurred in New York rather than in Washington. It seemed such an innocent musing at the time. 

So we were somehow still shocked when at 9:37am, Flight 77 slammed into the building, striking between Corridor 4 and 5, virtually destroying the C, D, and E rings.

From where I was, the impact of the crash felt like a heavy object falling in the hallway, making a series of loud noises and shaking the ground. We opened the suite door to try to understand what had happened, but the Public Address System didn’t work, so we waited. It didn’t take long to see people in the hallways, so we decided to secure our computers and office and evacuate the building.

I went immediately to the Child Care Center, where I picked up my son and then walked toward the Potomac River moving away from the building. Helicopters were overhead and smoke filled the sky on the other side of the Pentagon. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to do next.  Public transportation was not operating, and I was holding a toddler in my arms. Eventually I saw a Policy colleague pull out of a parking spot in North Parking, so I flagged him down to beg a ride away from the scene. That began a many hours long effort to reach home.

My son and I were so lucky that day. The country had been attacked on a horrific scale, and in such an absolutely horrific manner. 

On 9/11, the next day, and in the months and years that followed, we saw the Pentagon community respond with resiliency.

On 9/11, we saw resiliency through acts of selflessness.  Pentagon employees and first responders worked to rescue survivors and fight an inferno. Incredibly, they rushed into the danger – into the suffocating black smoke and an unbearably intense heat – uniformed and civilian, side by side, into the destroyed areas to save others. All the while, they didn’t know if the building might collapse further – or, if another attack was coming. 

I don’t know that any words can capture their heroism.

You’ll recall that in-spite of the attacks, the building didn’t close that day. And that night, then Secretary Rumsfeld held a press-conference to let the American people know that the Pentagon continued to operate. There was a resiliency through duty.

Since the completion of its construction – the Pentagon had never closed its doors. And Secretary Rumsfeld let the nation know that we would be open on September 12th. And that next day, by one count, an estimated 10,000 employees, like me, like some of you, arrived, filled with purpose and conviction. And that resilience lasted well beyond the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  It was on display throughout the Phoenix Project – the name for the Pentagon’s reconstruction project. The team goal was to rebuild the damaged sections and have it ready to be staffed in one year.

A large digital clock was constructed, which displayed to the construction team the remaining days, hours, and minutes until September 11, 2002. With the eyes of the nation on it, the team of thousands worked tirelessly. Shift workers arrived an hour or two ahead of schedule to get a jump on the morning. Others were putting in twenty-hour days. We witnessed a resiliency through their perseverance. Incredibly, the work was finished in August 2002 – more than three weeks early.

And as we prepare to commemorate 20 years since the attacks, this seems a fitting moment to re-dedicate ourselves to that resilient spirit. One that seeks to act selflessly, uphold our duty, and is dedicated to perseverance.

We do so to honor those we lost and remember the innocents taken from us. And we do so, bringing a renewed purpose to ensuring that we remain vigilant in defending our democracy and our nation. 

Thank you again for joining us this morning.  May God bless you and protect the United States.