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9-11 Reflections

by | Sep 9, 2021

Artwork from one of the youngest guests at Fort McCoy. (Bill Schwinn photo)


There are a variety of ways I could have approached this 20-year anniversary of 9-11. The following is an attempt to provide a personal (apolitical/nonpartisan) look at the past 20 years.

I was a Navy Lieutenant Commander on September 11, 2001. I had been serving on active duty for just over 11 years at that point and was stationed in Pearl Harbor. Ironically, the site of the previous “Day of Infamy” was about as far away from the 9-11 attacks as you could be, and still be in the United States. I was serving as the Public Affairs Officer for Navy Region Hawaii, and I would often translate that as my 1-star admiral boss was the “Navy Mayor of Hawaii” and he was also responsible for all the surface ships stationed in Pearl Harbor.

I lived in Ewa Beach on Oahu, and typically had about a 20 to 30-minute commute to my office at Naval Station Pearl Harbor. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center North Tower, I was sound asleep. It was 8:46 Eastern time which meant it was 2:46 a.m. in Hawaii.

The words engraved on one of the granite markers at the entrance to the Pentagon 9-11 Memorial. (Jane Campbell photo)

In the middle of the night, the first phone call I received was from the senior Navy dentist in Hawaii. Not sure if he had insomnia or what, but he was awake at 2:46 a.m. and he called me. Unable to grasp what was happening, I knew I needed to get to Pearl Harbor – fast.

I typically had some sort of a “go-bag” packed, and I just started stuffing more things in it – since I had no idea what the immediate future would hold. Within a few minutes, I was on the (empty) road heading out of Ewa Beach.

The South Tower was hit at 9:03 a.m. Eastern. Within moments, my cell phone rang again and this time it was the Security Officer telling me they were shutting down the base and I needed to hurry. At that point, I remember going nearly 80 mph on the H-1. I told him I was almost there.

When I reached the front gate, it seemed that they were closing it behind me. I know that there was still extremely limited access after that point – but the “pre 9-11” access that we had known would never return.

Flight 77 struck The Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., and while the attacks on the twin towers were an attack on our Nation – the attack on the Pentagon made it even more personal. My sister Lee was inside the five-sided building. I saw it unfold on the small 13” TV that hung in my office. I immediately tried calling her. Her phone didn’t ring. I didn’t get a busy signal. It was literally dead air.

In what seemed like an absolute eternity, I finally received a call from Lee. She was safe, but the attack had been very close. She lost her office to the smoke and fire damage. No one on her immediate staff had been seriously injured or killed. However, as we would all learn – there were 184 victims at the Pentagon – 125 in the Pentagon, and 59 on Flight 77.

My international Public Affairs team at the ISAF Joint Command Headquarters. It was an honor to lead this amazing group of professionals.

The remainder of my tour in paradise was consumed with efforts to balance resumed access to some of the most treasured historic monuments in Pearl Harbor with the much-needed security that needed to be in place – especially for the nuclear repair facility.

We figured out how to do it. We figured out how to not only host the 60th Anniversary Ceremony on December 7, 2001 – but we also figured out how to return to public tours to the USS Arizona Memorial.

The reality is that the remainder of my Navy career, another 14+ years, would be defined by the acts of terror that struck our Nation on September 11, 2001.

Fast forward two years, and I was headed to the Pentagon. My first day in the five-sided building was my sister’s last. She was heading to a new assignment in Pensacola. I was being assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Public Affairs Office.

One of the most challenging aspects of my first tour at the Pentagon was my role in announcing casualties. As the staff officer supporting the OSD Personnel and Readiness staff, I reviewed the draft press releases from each of the services as they announced the names of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. My “job” was essentially to proofread the documents, but the challenge was processing the individual losses of war.

Two years later, I was detailed to the White House – assigned to the National Security Council Staff. As the Director for Communications Strategy, I coordinated with a variety of directorates across the NSC, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Directorate. At that point, I was seeing things at a strategic level – but I kept reflecting on the individual losses.

In 2008, I was forward deployed on the staff of Naval Forces Central Command – the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain. In addition to the maritime operations in the region, my boss was also responsible for the Navy personnel ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan. And just a year later, I became one of those Sailors on the ground in in Afghanistan.

I was part of the team that established a three-star NATO operational command headquarters at Kabul International Airport. I lived at the military facility at the airport for roughly 10 months. Representatives from 17 different NATO countries served on the ISAF Joint Command staff.  My Public Affairs Staff included U.S., Polish, German, Afghan, and French personnel.

On the 10th Anniversary of 9-11, I was back in the U.S. I had just earned my Master’s Degree in National Security Strategy and was serving as the Director of Press Operations for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. My staff was responsible for coordinating the media for the 10th Anniversary ceremony at the Pentagon.

That day was a somber, reflective day. A large American flag was draped from the roof of the Pentagon – and was visible from the Pentagon Memorial. There are 184 benches at that memorial, each engraved with the name of one of the victims. The placement of each bench reflects whether the victim was in the building or on the plane.

The large American flag draped from the roof of the Pentagon on September 11, 2011. (Jane Campbell photo)

Now, for the 20th anniversary there is a new plot twist. My sister Ann is following in our Mom’s footsteps as a Red Cross Volunteer. Wednesday morning, I drove her to the Charlotte Airport for a flight to Detroit, and then on to Lacrosse, Wisconsin.

She had originally been slated to go to New Jersey to help with flood relief efforts, but I mentioned a different idea. One of my classmates from the National War College had been providing updates on social media about his decision to volunteer in the Afghan Refugee efforts. He was at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. I asked him if they had Red Cross Volunteers, and he confirmed that they were helping on site.

And with that, my sister requested to be sent to Fort McCoy. She arrived there this morning – after spending the night in Lacrosse as she and another Red Cross Volunteer waited on two more volunteers to join them for the drive to Fort McCoy.

Despite being an Army brat, I had never heard of Fort McCoy before my classmate said that he was deploying there last week. A quick search of the internet provided the following details: it is an Army Training Center. Fort McCoy encompasses more than 60,000 acres in rural Wisconsin. Some estimates suggest that roughly 100,000 Soldiers train at Fort McCoy every year.

The capacity of Fort McCoy’s infrastructure made it a logical choice for one of the several Defense Department sites being used for “Operation Allies Welcome.” The other installations include: Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.; Fort Pickett, Virginia.; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and Camp Atterbury, Indiana. The Department of Homeland Security is serving as the lead U.S. Government agency for the operation.

My sister’s first text after arriving was to tell me that Fort McCoy is now home to 12,763 guests. She was also quick to point at that the number includes four babies born this week.

The reality is that 50,000+ refugees from Afghanistan are already in the United States. Nearly 13,000 of them are at Fort McCoy. Think about it – a population roughly equal to the population of the Town of Davidson has been transported around the world to a 60,000-acre Army training base in Wisconsin. While their futures in the United States will be different, they are collectively the recipients of the hospitality being offered by Red Cross volunteers, active and reserve military personnel, and countless other volunteers.

So, as we approach this 20th anniversary of 9-11, I am grateful for so many things:

  • I’m grateful that my sister Lee survived the attack in the Pentagon and is enjoying her retirement in Pensacola.
  • I am grateful for the volunteer service of my sister Ann. She is representing the best of a welcoming Nation.

I am indeed – grateful.


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