Sept. 11, 2001, started out as an ordinary day. My wife had a busy schedule, including a morning meeting at the Pentagon. She worked in a budget position at the Defense Intelligence Agency. I was retired at home with our three young children.
The night before, our young daughter had been up all night with an earache. Early that morning, she begged my wife to take her to the 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment that I had made for her. So my wife called into work and asked someone else to take the meeting.
That morning, the office where the meeting was to be held was destroyed by an airplane crashing into the Pentagon.
All morning while my wife and daughter were at the doctor’s office the phone rang as the personnel in her office called to check in and confirm that they were all right. Several had been out of the office when the plane hit; others were assigned to other government offices in the Washington area.
I received a call from a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who worked for my wife. She called to say that the man who had replaced her at her previous position in the Pentagon had been hit by the hijacked jetliner when it crashed. It turned out that all personnel in that office were killed. Her replacement was a young Navy lieutenant with a 1-month-old baby. She was driving to the lieutenant’s home to stay with his wife until they had more information. She said she would call me back as soon as “things settled down” there.
My eyes started to tear up as a hung up. Several hours later she called back, sobbing slightly and said she would be staying overnight with the widow to help with the sorrow and the baby. We hung up, and I had a short cry. I do not cry easily as I was a hardened Marine Corps and Special Forces noncommissioned officer before I was direct commissioned as an intelligence officer. That day was truly as Franklin Roosevelt said of about Pearl Harbor “a day that will live in infamy.”
My wife returned that afternoon but many did not. We all went to bed as a warm and safe family again. The next several days were a whirlwind of people contacts, morale improvement efforts and funerals. In the office where the meeting was supposed to be held seven Defense Intelligence Agency employees were killed and many of the survivors were badly injured. I was very grateful that my wife was spared.
Some years earlier, I worked in the Pentagon as a civilian intelligence officer for the U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence along with my wife. We sometimes took our lunch breaks to eat at the Pentagon Center Pavilion snack bar. While there, I noticed the huge fir trees, 30 to 40 feet tall, were depositing their seedlings under their massive branches. I dug up some of those seedlings and transplanted them under the southern pine tree growing in our northern Virginia yard. Our house in Virginia was built many years before by a U.S. Army colonel on the very ground that had been a part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Plantation. The trees thrived in fertile ground that had once been a large corn field.
When I moved to Tahlequah in 2006, I brought five of those “seedlings,” which were by then over 6 feet tall. I planted them and think of that small grove as a 9/11 memorial. We placed a small marble monument with a brass plate next to the trees. It says:
“Dedicated to the seven fellow Defense Agency Intelligence Officers that lost their lives on 11 September 2001 at the Pentagon Washington D.C. May their deaths not be in vain and we reaffirm the need to defend our country and Constitution.”
When you pass our home in Tahlequah, don’t ask yourselves who those candles are burning for. They are not just for those seven DIA employees killed in that office. To paraphrase the poet John Donne: Those candles are burning for all U.S. citizens who strive to be honest and happy in their pursuit of a good life.
In the movie, Private Ryan was saved by many fellow soldiers who gave their lives for him. May we all be saved.
S.L. “Hack” Hackworth, a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and U.S. Marine Corps and Special Forces noncomissioned officer, lives in Tahlequah.
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