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September 13, 2002
A year ago, a lifetime ago
by Gen. Lance Lord
AF Space Command Commander, Peterson AFB, Colo.
It was a year ago when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and much has happened to us Americans since that day, especially those of us in the military.
September 11 has become our generation's Pearl Harbor. We, like those listening to the radio that Sunday morning in 1941, will always remember where we were and what we were doing that day.
The images of that day, of terror and the heroism that followed, will be forever etched in my memory because I saw it firsthand. I was there in the Pentagon when the third plane hit.
We had gathered that Tuesday morning for our usual staff meeting with the Air Force chief of staff. The secretary of the Air Force, Dr. James Roche, and others from the secretariat and Air Staff were in attendance. I was the assistant vice chief of staff and Gen. John Jumper, our new chief of staff, had just started his first official duty day.
We had just gone through the intelligence briefing when one of the technicians turned the briefing screen on to CNN. A plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center and we sat mesmerized by the scenes of billowing smoke. As soon as the second plane hit the tower, the chief closed his book and said: "We're under attack." We all sat there in stunned disbelief for a few seconds, then we quickly went back to our offices. On our way back, we heard there was another plane inbound to Washington. That's all we knew.
I was in the vice chief's office, next to mine, when we heard a dull thud and felt some sort of shock or vibration. Alarms started going off.
Since one of my duties included building evacuation in case of emergency, I went out in the hall to do what I could. Someone was yelling: "A bomb went off! A bomb went off!" We worked on the other side of the building from where the plane had hit so we knew little of the real situation. I went up and down the E-ring, shouting: "Everyone evacuate! Please get out of the building!"
Fortunately, we had practiced an evacuation of the building during a mass casualty exercise just a month earlier, so our assembly points were fresh in our minds. Purely a coincidence, the scenario for that exercise included a plane hitting the building.
We couldn't tell what had happened until we got out of the building and saw the black smoke coming over the top of the Pentagon. People who had evacuated were milling around, at first not knowing what to do. I told them to go home, if they had their keys, and to take someone with them. As I went back into the building, past the police keeping those evacuated from returning, there was an electrical burning smell in the air and I saw someone running down the corridor. His front was black from the soot and fire and I noticed that, oddly, his back was just fine. It was untouched.
I saw people taking it upon themselves to help out. Some put blankets on those who were hurt while others directed the flow of people. I saw people comforting each other in the parking lot; it didn't matter who they were. I saw chaos; but not panic. Later that night, I saw Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld walking down the corridor; shirtsleeves were rolled up ... dirty from helping people.
I realized then, as others did, that this single event had awakened us from our routine lives. It was an amazing transformation. The nation was once again reminded how important those who serve really are. Everyone, regardless of job, was critical to the response and the team really came together.
On this anniversary, I suspect we'll see many images in the papers and on TV from a year ago and it's good to remember that day. Along with the scenes of chaos in New York, the destruction at the Pentagon, and the heroism over Pennsylvania, it is important to remember two things, America is strong and we are fortunate to serve this great country. Defending our values and freedoms is a noble goal and I'm proud to serve with you.