On September 11, 2001, I was at home not feeling well. I awoke to the phone that had been ringing and ringing constantly. It was my Mom calling telling me that we were being attacked. I turned on the TV and watched in horror as the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon burned. I cried uncontrollably while watching the Towers collapse. I immediately called a good friend of mine, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force who worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon to see if she was okay. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I received a call from her telling me she was safe. After being evacuated from the Pentagon for a short time, she, along with many others, returned to work in the Pentagon that evening. They had a job to do. She later told me of the smell of jet fuel throughout the Pentagon complex and how it will haunt her forever.
Along with many around the country and the world, I remained glued to the TV watching the tragedy unfold. I watched as many other attacks were reported throughout Washington D.C. That evening, I drove from my place in Alexandria to Route 27 near the Pentagon to see first hand the extent of the damage to the Pentagon. Feeling helpless, I called the local Red Cross and asked how I could help. They needed volunteers to go to a Crystal City hotel near the Pentagon to help with the families of those who were missing at the Pentagon.
Volunteering with the Red Cross, I was assigned to greet the family members who had come to get further information about their loved ones missing from the Pentagon. I stayed with each family while they registered their missing family members’ information, checked into the hotel, went to an area where clergy were available, talked to military officials about potential military benefits, and last to an area to wait for further information.
After taking the first few families though this process, a part of me started to realize that their loved ones were probably not missing, but dead. It took everything I had to stay calm and not break down in tears as I watched the families panic and cry. I volunteered for the next several days helping and coordinating this response for family members. I had never felt more exhausted in my life. I don’t really remember sleeping much in those days after 9/11. I cried so much that my face was raw.
The days following the attack, the entire Washington D.C. area was in a state of severe grief. Life did not go on as usual. How could it? I remember feeling guilty a week later for going out to dinner with a friend. I felt like I shouldn’t be enjoying myself. It was a long time before I could do anything other than work and watch news. 9/11 changed me as it changed so many others. While I had been involved in politics for about ten years by then, my commitment to serve my country had deepened. I went back to work on Capitol Hill shortly thereafter. I also reevaluated my personal life. I had focused a lot on school and career for the past ten years. 9/11 was a reminder to keep my family and friends close.
Now as I write this, I am sitting in my apartment with a view of Washington D.C. Most prominent in my view is the Pentagon with the National Mall in the background. I can see the flag they draped over the side of the Pentagon in remembrance. Watching the smoke from the Pentagon just across the river from the White House and Capitol seems almost like a dream, a lifetime ago.
As we learned from the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, ten years is not a long time for Al Qaeda to wait for their next attack. While today is a day for remembrance of those who perished on that fateful day, we must also remember the evil that attacked our country. Lives were, indeed, ended by evil that day. Lest we forget this fact. Lest we water it down and suggest as some that we provoked or even deserved that evil.
Al Qaeda inflicted permanent damage on the psyche of America. However, we must never retreat and never forget that it is evil we fight. It wasn’t just planes and buildings that were attacked on 9/11, but our American way of life. We must stay vigilant against all attacks -foreign and domestic – to our country and our founding ideals of freedom, individual liberty, and equality of opportunity. 9/11 is a time for grieving. It is a time for prayer. It is a time for reflecting on our love of family and friends. Ten years later, 9/11 needs to be about recalling America’s exceptionalism and the need to preserve and defend it at all costs.