By Lt. Col. James Foley, 379th Expeditionary Communications Squadron
/ Published September 09, 2003
AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar -- The building shook and we were at war. One minute became a defining moment, for the course of our country and for a career in military service.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was on duty at the Pentagon, when the plane hi-jacked by terrorists struck, killing 189 innocent people. At the time of the attack I was away from my duty section, so I hurried out along with the crowds that were evacuating the building. I will never forget the sight of the Pentagon burning, with a thick plume of black smoke rising from the building’s southwest side.
That sight and the events that followed are indelibly burned into my memory, and I will always remember the sense of duty, sacrifice, and total teamwork that instantly arose in response to our enemy’s cowardly and surprise attack on a nation at peace. I was immediately filled with feelings of pride, in our country and our military services, and of anger -- feelings that remain just as strong today.
The initial word was that a bomb had gone off. But the damage and the smoke looked way too big for it to be a bomb. Very soon, people said that a 757 airliner had hit the building. I still don’t know how they knew that, but they were right.
The scene outside was chaotic, and many people, of course, were very upset. I began to direct people to evacuate away from the building. We had a strong sense that other attacks might follow. And apparently one was on the way, but it was stopped by the bravery and sacrifice of the true Americans who were passengers on United Flight 93.
After about 25 minutes, Defense Protective Service and local police arrived to secure the area, and directed traffic and emergency response vehicles. I saw several victims walk across the parking lot. They were quickly helped and attended to by their fellow service members. Seeing them, made me angry all over again, and I had a sense of urgency to do something. At that point, I stood for about three minutes and watched the Pentagon burn -- a period that now seems likes hours.
In the midst of this chaos and confusion, it suddenly dawned on me that I was needed at my duty station in the National Military Command Center. As the Pentagon burned, I knew I had to go back inside, to my place of duty. At that moment, I learned the real meaning of “service before self” -- it isn’t just words on the wall, folks.
Slightly fearful and filled with trepidation, I ran back in the river entrance and hurried up to the NMCC. As I passed through the hallways, they were beginning to fill with smoke. I quickly arrived at my office in the NMCC, expecting to find more chaos and a sense of fear.
There was no chaos or fear to be found. The military professionals on duty had immediately turned to the job at hand, identifying the damage, detecting additional threats, ensuring readiness of all U.S. military forces and activating the crisis action team.
I am still impressed with the calmness and mission focus that the Joint Staff and NMCC operations and support teams displayed in the face of this attack, when more attacks were expected.
As the NMCC operations officer, my job was to ensure that the command center remained operational at all times; that life support, power, and communications were available to enable the operations mission. Our immediate problem was that our environmental control systems had broken down due to damage to the building, and the command center was taking on smoke through the air ducts. As things continued to deteriorate, the temperature rose and more smoke came in.
We thought we were within one hour of losing the fight to restore our life support systems. If this had occurred, we would have had to close down the national command center and evacuate the operations staff to other locations, creating a possible disruption in national command operations. It did not look good for our team.
At this point, I learned a real lesson in quiet heroism. A team of three people -- a DOD civilian, a DOD contract employee, and an Air Force technical sergeant -- took it upon themselves to venture into the Pentagon hallways and go upstairs to the air shafts to repair the NMCC’s air handling system.
With complete disregard for their personal safety, without safety equipment or breathing apparatus, they went into smoke-filled stairwells to reach the air handling equipment and reverse the blowers. While this may seem like a small feat, at the time it was incredibly brave. They weren’t asked to do it. They stepped up to do what was needed because they believed it was their duty and the team was counting on them.
As a direct result of the quick and fearless action of these outstanding people, the NMCC remained on-line and the national command didn’t miss a beat. Since then, I have come to understand that in the U.S. armed forces humble heroes like these three surround us every day.
Due to these heroic efforts, an unfailing mission focus, and teamwork, the command center’s life support systems were restored within two hours of the attack. Within four hours, the incoming smoke was vented out, and in only six hours the entire NMCC was stabilized.
In the mean time, the national command structure had responded immediately to the four separate attacks. U.S. forces were placed on alert, the initial military response to defend against further attacks was directed, and a Joint Staff crisis action team assembled. All of this was accomplished within the first two hours, while the situation was entirely uncertain, and the Pentagon was burning.
As part of my duties, I went onto the rof of the Pentagon three times Sept. 11 to assess the damage and evaluate the further threat posed to the building by the ongoing fire. The damage was, as we all now know, extensive and devastating. The fire caused by the explosion of the airplane’s fuel tanks was huge, and initially it seemed out of control. But, the fearless, dedicated and coordinated response of the emergency response crews exceeded all expectations.
I stood on the roof of the Pentagon, only 150-feet from the burning section, and watched the Arlington and Fairfax County firefighters attack and counter-attack the fire. To watch them cut and smash away the Pentagon roof with their fire axes was, to say the least, unusual. Their bravery was incredible, and heroism seemed second nature to them.
Within 12 hours they brought the terrible fire under control, and it was completely put out in less than 36 hours, so the re-building could begin. We cannot overstate the role the firefighters and emergency responders played on that traumatic day, nor can we adequately express our thanks for what they did. I remain inspired by their conduct and skill; they have earned my lifelong respect.
I would like to set the record straight as to the performance and behavior of our national command structure during the drastic events of Sept. 11, 2001. My report is first-hand, as I was in the NMCC with the DOD leadership at that time. Hear this folks! The National Command Authority remained rock solid, didn’t skip a beat, and retained constant and continual control of all U.S. military forces throughout the events of Sept. 11. I know, because I was there.
Both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers (then vice chairman, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) were energetically and completely in command of the developing situation. I spent about two hours around these gentlemen, and their leadership, demeanor, and focus on defending our nation and countering any emerging threats was remarkable. Their performance inspired confidence in the military staffs, and I quickly realized that the national response would be well coordinated, and that the “bad guys” would soon be in for unhappy days.
Both of these leaders have my complete respect and admiration for their energetic actions, calming influence, and coolness under pressure when faced with unexpected attack, uncertainties, and a dire situation.
For their part, the military staffs responded instantly with consummate professionalism to evaluate and respond to the attacks, establish control of the developing situation, and, very soon, to plan and execute our military response against enemy capabilities. Everyone available stepped up and met the demands of his or her assigned role; their expertise was impressive, the teamwork displayed was fantastic.
The best military the world has ever seen launched into action to defend our home and to send a message to our enemies, “Big mistake, you’re in for a fight.” There was an immediate and intense sense that “something big” was going to happen. As we now know, it did. On that day our enemies unknowingly “opened a can of Uncle Sam”, so to speak.
I have a few thoughts to offer about the significance of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In one brief, shining moment, I came to understand and value the meaning of serving our country, and more especially the decision to willingly serve in the defense of our nation. In one day, my 18-year Air Force career was validated and affirmed.
We are needed now more than ever. Service in defense of our values, our way of life, and the communities we love and cherish, has a meaning and reward that those who do not serve can’t know.
The strength of our country, our communities, and our military was tested. All have emerged with our colors proudly flying. The support, love, and encouragement that poured from our families, friends, and communities are awesome. It re-affirms all of the reasons we serve. We are honored, and our purpose has been given new clarity.
Because of my experience at the Pentagon Sept. 11, I take the “global war on terrorism” personally. I was about 1,500 feet from where the plane hit, and my wonderful wife, Noy, was also working at the Pentagon that day. As far as I am concerned, my family and I were directly attacked by people we don’t know and have never seen, for reasons that are warped, misguided, and unjust. Those fanatics miscalculated and misunderstood the repercussions of their cowardly and despicable actions.
In response, I want us to take the fight to these enemies, wherever they are hiding or are found. They had the audacity (and poor judgment) to attack us in our hometowns; let us put the hurt on their doorstep. It is not a matter of country, region, political perspective, or religion. Now, it is personal. I am in it for the long haul.
For that reason, I highly value and truly appreciate all, fellow Americans, friends, and allies, who stand beside us in our right cause. It is about defending our nation, securing our future, and making the world a safer and better place. God bless America!