A CSO’s 9/11 Story.
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Read Rick's original notes of 9/11/01 written in the weeks following the attacks.

A CSO’s 9/11 Story.

Listen to the audio version of this story.

I was stationed in the Pentagon on 9/11. 

You might say I had a birds-eye view of when the entire War on Terror began. As I write this, President Biden has brought the American soldiers home from Afghanistan. He wanted America out of there before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the event that precipitated going there in the first place. It brings to an end

  • Operation Enduring Freedom - The Afghanistan War
  • Operation Freedom Sentinel - The Afghanistan Support Mission
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom - The Iraq War
  • Operation New Dawn - Iraq War Transition

There is still one operation on-going:

  • Operation Inherent Resolve - Military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

We refer to all of those operations combined as the the "War on Terrorism." After 20 years, here is the bottom line 

  • The longest war in American history by 10 years (Vietnam was the second longest)
  • 7,041 U.S. Soldiers and DOD Civilians Killed 
  • 53,283 U.S. Soldiers and DOD Civilians Wounded in Action 
  • ~30,000 active duty personnel and war veterans death by suicide
  • ~325,000 local citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan
  • American financial Cost: ~$5.4 Trillion

Out of the 13 wars the US has fought, It ranks 7th in total number of soldiers killed between the Revolutionary War (4,435) and the Mexican War (13,283). I will leave the question of whether or not that was a wise investment of our national treasure to another time.

I began taking notes about what was happening on that one horrible day because I knew it was historical and that I would want to remember the details down the road. I finished them on 12 November 2001 and shared them with some close personal friends and some family members who were interested. And then I forgot about them. As this is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I thought it was time to revisit them to see if my memory of that day, and subsequent days, had fogged over or if I could pull some insight from that experience.

I've included the original text at the end of this just to keep myself honest. After reading it, I realized I didn't capture half the stories that I had been telling friends and colleagues ever since. This essay is an exercise in capturing those stories. Be warned, 20 years is a long time and memory is a funny thing. All I can say is, this is how I remember it. I'm not going to try and vouch for every detail.

Army Operations Center and the Pentagon

When I got promoted to lieutenant colonel, the Army assigned me to the Pentagon to be what was essentially the network manager for the Army Operation Center. I worked there from July 1998 to December 2001. Back then, the AOC coordinated global operations for the United States Army and my job was to make sure that all of its communications systems worked 24 X 7. At the time, the AOC was located in a basement SCIF (Sensitive compartmented information facility), two floors below ground level, inside a bunker of reinforced steel and concrete, 60 feet below a parking lot, on the north side of the 5-sided building. The Pentagon itself covers 29 acres, including a 5 acre courtyard in its center. It houses 17.5 miles of hallways. It has five floors above ground and two below. On each floor, there are five concentric hallways or rings (A-E) with air gaps between each ring. At one point in its history, it was the largest office building in the world and approximately 23,000 employees worked there every day (before the pandemic).

Amazingly, Flight 77 hit the Pentagon's side that was in the middle of an anti-terrorism uplift and modernization project. Just prior, it had been reinforced and renovated, was way stronger then it had been, and on that morning, also relatively unoccupied. Normally, 5,000 people would have been working in those offices. Instead, 125 people were killed, not counting Flight 77's 64 passengers.

Resiliency & Site R

When I first arrived in 1998, the communications systems that I was responsible for was a range of commercial off the shelf servers and workstations (Microsoft Windows), security tools (like firewalls and anti-virus) and networking equipment on both the UNCLASSIFIED (NIPRNET) and SECRET (SIPRNET) networks. We ran email servers, database servers, web servers, and other applications on both networks. We also ran proprietary communications systems on UNIX servers on the SECRET side. But there was little redundancy. If one server failed, several key and essential applications would go offline. We spent the next two years making everything redundant in terms of separate servers for each essential application and redundant internet links to ensure that if there were any catastrophic failures, the AOC would continue to function. 

We even had an alternative location, Site R, that was originally designed back in the 1960s as an alternate location for the government (the President and Staff) in case the Russians launched nuclear missiles at D.C.; think Cheyenne Mountain from the movie War Games. In 2001 though, nuclear missiles had improved so much that Site R offered no protection. The AOC and other Pentagon organizations used it as an alternative command post for other potential and mundane catastrophes. It did have one of the best mess halls that I had experienced in my long Army career though. We even practiced switching over to Site R from the Pentagon AOC a couple of times as an exercise. The plan was that if ever we needed to leave the Pentagon, essential personnel would form outside in the parking lot and prearranged school buses would drive everybody to Site R.

9/11

I left the house around 0600 and caught the Springfield metro yellow line train to the Pentagon. The weather was beautiful, crisp blue skies and wispy white clouds, wonderful fall temperatures. I arrived at my AOC office around 0700, dropped off my stuff, and quickly checked email. I left the AOC almost immediately to attend a mandatory 0800 retirement briefing. The briefing was for all military close to their retirement date and the auditorium was on the 5th floor above the metro concourse, the subway station that services the blue and yellow line underneath the building. The metro concourse side of the Pentagon was two sides away from where Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center at 0846 and Flight 175 did the same at 0903, but since we were in a briefing, nobody in the auditorium knew what was going on. When Flight 77 hit the Pentagon around 0937, we heard the fire alarms go off, but everybody in the auditorium treated it like any other fire drill (Ho-hum, yawn, here we go again -- after all, the Pentagon is really old and we get a lot of false alarms). I heard a loud noise prior to the alarms, but it sounded to me like somebody had dropped a big stack of dishes off a table on the ceiling above us. I didn't hear a "plane crash." 

The retirement briefer was still going through his slides but we were hearing a lot of commotion in the hallway. Finally, the briefer said something like, "Somebody look in the hallway to see if there is actually a fire somewhere."

When we saw the large crowd of panicked people running in the hallway and the enormous cloud of smoke billowing in the air through the inside windows that overlooked the courtyard in the middle of the Pentagon, we knew something was wrong but we didn't know what yet.

The security guards moved us towards the exits at the South Entrance. For the most part it was orderly, until the line started to bunch up at the doors. The worst behaving people at the moment were neither the civilians nor the lower ranks. The ones who were vocal, angry, visibly scared, and acting out were the colonels. I remember thinking to myself how poor an example they were setting for the rest of us.

When I made it out of the building and into the parking lot near the South Entrance, I saw huge fireballs leaping high above the Pentagon's roof. People were lined up on the outside of the parking lots just watching. I ran into several friends and acquaintances. That's when I found out about the World Trade Center and that we were under attack. I even ran into my next-door neighbor. His uniform was in tatters and it had bloodstains and burn marks all over it. He was OK, but he was definitely close to the impact area when it happened.

The Air Force started doing patrol missions around the D.C. area to protect against any other hijacked plane attacks, but none of us on the ground knew that. When they first showed up, there was a moment of panic in the parking lot as security guards ran at us, hands waving in the air, and yelling to get away from the building and the potential of another crash.

I gravitated to the crash site side. My concern was that, from where I was, I couldn't tell if the fire had reached the AOC part of the building. I didn't know if any of my people had been hurt either. And, there was the entire plan of getting to the alternative site, Site R. I had to get my people up there. So, I started walking around the Pentagon to get to my side of the building 

The security guards kept pushing the crowd back further and further away from the crash. I had to hop the fence at Arlington Cemetery and cut across because the guards wouldn't let us get any closer. By the time I made it to the Pentagon's River Entrance side, I could tell that the AOC side of the building was unaffected by the crash, at least on the surface. The fire was not close; but I didn't see any of my folks on the outside. I hadn't run into a single person from the AOC. There were hundreds of people milling about and I didn't recognize any of them. 

By the time I arrived, buses from Walter Reed hospital filled with doctors and nurses were just pulling into the parking lot . They grabbed equipment and stretchers and started running into the building; so, along with a bunch of other people, I picked up one end of a gurney and ran in with them. 

Once I got into the building, I tried to peel away from the group and head downstairs to the basement and the AOC hallway. But the smoke was so thick, and the stairway was so dark, that I couldn't make it. There was nobody in the stairway either. I made my way back to the medical folks who were setting up triage stations in the Pentagon's center courtyard. 

Some Air Force general had organized everybody in the courtyard into various triage team functions. For at least two hours I sat as part of the stretcher team waiting for casualties to come out but nobody ever did. The firemen tried and tried to get through to the crash site, but the fire was too hot. They couldn't get through. They tried numerous paths to get in but all failed. I learned later that the casualties were brought out through the outside of the building, but we didn’t know that then. There were about 200 of us in there; sitting around yearning to do something useful. The longer we sat there, the more we all knew that there weren’t going to be many survivors.

I left my cell and my beeper back in the office before I went to my meeting (Except my palm pilot - I actually wrote the first version of this account on my palm while I sat in the center courtyard). It didn't matter though. Nobody was getting through on their cell phones. The grid was jammed. Finally, late in the afternoon, somebody yelled that he got a line. About 30 of us lined up to tell this guy's wife our home phone numbers so that she could call our spouses and tell them that we were OK.

Finally, around 5:00 PM, I saw Richard Barger, one of my AOC folks, walking around in the courtyard looking for food. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the AOC activated the Crisis Action Team (CAT). When the plane hit the Pentagon, leadership just closed the doors to the AOC and hunkered down. Richard was so happy to see me. Since everybody in the AOC hadn't heard from me, they feared the worst. And I had no idea what happened to them. Richard quickly ran me down to the AOC (By the way, no smoke, plenty of lights). When I finally arrived, it was like a mini-reunion. I was very glad that they were not on fire and they were very glad that a plane didn't land on me.

Al Nieder - Renaissance man

After the plane hit the building, the resulting fire and smoke began traveling down the hallways towards the AOC. The smoke was so thick, that the leadership team was close to ordering the evacuation of the command center. But Al Nieder, one of the guys that worked on my communication's team, is one of those rare renaissance men. He knows a little something about everything, from thermodynamics to field dressing rabbits in the woods. He surveyed the situation, analyzed the airflow in the basement, and determined which doors to leave open and which doors to close in order to redirect the smoke away from the center. 

I am guessing that his actions are what cleared the hallway of smoke when Richard Barger and I made our way there around 5 PM and allowed the AOC leadership to stay in place. He really did save the day.

Cables Everywhere

When I finally arrived back at the AOC (~1800), the place was organized chaos. Because of those redundancies we had worked on for the previous two years, we were the only Army organization that still had phones, computers and Internet access. Everybody else who didn’t have that access descended on us for help, including the other Services. I have never seen so many general officers in one place. We were literally running power cords and ethernet cables through the hallways, setting up temporary desks in the middle, plopping spare computers on them, and telling generals to "sit."

My lovely wife Kathy

My wife, Kathy, had the harder part of the day. I knew I was OK but she didn't, and I couldn't get through to her. Friends and relatives were calling her to see if I had survived. Of course, she didn't know and worried about me getting a busy signal if I ever got a chance to call. She didn't get the word that I was safe until about 3:30 PM. 

That's when the wife of the guy in the courtyard, who took home phone numbers from 30 of us, finally called Kathy. She announced herself as being from the Department of Defense. I guess she was trying to be professional about it. To Kathy though, she thought she was getting the "Official" notification about my death. For a couple of seconds there, she thought she was a widow. 

My Proudest Moment - The First Status meeting

Very early the next morning, the AOC (now a Crisis Action Team - CAT) conducted its first official status meeting since the event. All the watch officers were there, the AOC Commander, General Peter Chiarelli was there, and Secretary of the Army Thomas White was there. When they got to the point in the briefing that discussed communications, there was one slide that listed the systems that supported the AOC and the Pentagon, over 30 if you included all the service systems (Navy, Marine, Air Force), the joint systems, and the AOC systems. It was a simple slide with a red or green bullet indicating up or down. 

The entire slide was red except for the five AOC systems they listed.

At that moment, I realized that the resiliency work that my team did during the two years before 9/11 probably saved the day for the AOC. Without it, they would have been deaf for hours, if not days, immediately after.

Years later, I would look back at that moment. Out of all the things that I got to experience in my 30 year career both in the military and the civilian world, I would point to that moment as the event that I was most proud of.

Potential Jump

After the status meeting, when the smoke and fire were still a potential threat to the AOC, the leadership team needed to consider an alternate location to move the AOC. They immediately rejected Site R as being too far away from DC to be useful (88 miles). They considered Fort Belvoir (19 Miles), south of the Pentagon. Three civilians (I can't remember their names) and I were told to go to Fort Belvoir to recon the INSCOM headquarters (U.S. Army Intelligence & Security Command) and coordinate with the INSCOM staff for a potential jump of the AOC. The four of us got into somebody's car and drove over to Belvoir. When we got there, between 7 AM and 9 AM, everybody was trying to get to work, but the post was locked down. After 9/11, the base commander went immediately to Force Protection Delta, which is to say that the military police were inspecting every car trying to get on post with a fine-toothed comb. The car line to get into Belvoir stretched back miles on Highway 1. But we were in a hurry. To our good fortune, the driver of our car was also an auxiliary policeman. On his own dime many years before, he had gone to Walmart and purchased a blue-light police bubble for use in parades and such. He slapped that flashing blue light on the roof of the car, pulled out of the Highway 1 line and raced to the Belvoir front gate.

In the middle of Force Protection Delta, the gate MPs didn't waste a minute. They saw a flashing blue light from a car full of strangers and immediately waved us in. They didn't even stop us to ask what we were doing. (Doh! I hope that made it into the after action report; maybe don't accept as a valid security credential a flashing blue light from Walmart during Force Protection Delta. I'm just saying.)

By the way, the AOC leadership team never jumped the operation to an alternate location.

John Quigg - Fireman

That evening, a few of us did a recon of the Pentagon to survey the damage. We ran into an old classmate of mine, John Quigg, doing the same. He was trying to salvage as many of the office computers and servers he could that were located in and around the vicinity of the plane crash (Flight 77 ). The problem he had was that, since the crash, the Pentagon security forces had locked the building down tight, especially close to the crash site. They were in no mood for another potential attack from some random person wandering into the building from off the streets. The only people who had free access were the firemen and rescue workers trying to find survivors and trying to put out fires. The security forces weren't going to let John anywhere near the offices near the crash site.

While John was wandering around though, he came across a set of fireman's equipment piled in a corner with nobody around to claim it. He decided to "borrow" the equipment to facilitate his search. When we ran into him, he was dressed in full fireman's regalia complete with hat and axe. Nobody hassled him from then on while he made his search. When we ran into him, he was pushing at least two large industrialized laundry dumpsters filled with computer equipment. 

General Eric Shinseki - the Army's 34th Chief of Staff 

Later that evening, we found our way to the Pentagon's messaging center where, among other things, all the classified messages to and from the Pentagon were printed and stored. There was hardly anybody there. Most had evacuated the building before noon. But we found giant boxes of printed messages for General Shinseki, the Army's Chief of Staff, that had obviously been piling up for most of the day. We weren't sure if the General had seen them (you could view them electronically if the systems were up - but we didn't know the status). A couple of us hauled the boxes over to the General's office around midnight. He was the only one there, sitting at his desk going through papers. He asked us if we were OK. Was anybody hurt? We asked him what he wanted us to do with the message boxes and he told us where to put them.

People Helping

The day after 9/11, people just wanted to help. At some point, local restaurant chain owners and fast food restaurant owners hauled their mobile platforms out to the Pentagon parking lots and cooked food for any soldier that was hungry. I remember Burger King, McDonald's, Outback Steak House, pizza joints too many to remember, and many others. For all the soldiers working in shifts 24 X 7 immediately after the event, if any of them were hungry, all they had to do was walk out to the parking lot to get free food. Those restaurant owners stayed out there for weeks. It was as if they couldn't do enough.

Burger King Whoppers

My boss, COL Bruce Bachus (The Commander of the CCSA), one of the original Army automators, was a big smoker but he couldn't smoke in the building. Consequently, he held impromptu meetings with his staff in the gaps between the Pentagon's hallway rings. Picture an uncovered back alley wide enough for maybe one compact car to fit through, complete with dumpsters and wiring infrastructure that supported the building. It wasn't dirty--this was the military for goodness sake--but it was industrial. During one late night meeting, around two in the morning, a couple of weeks after 9/11, Bruce was holding court in the gap between the E Ring and the D Ring. Off in the distance, we saw an electric golf cart approaching us with two civilians as passengers. With all of the bizarre things I saw after 9/11, two civilians in a golf cart traveling in the gap between the E Ring and the D Ring at 2 AM wasn't normal. They stopped their cart at our gathering space and we saw immediately that they were hauling big, white, plastic paint buckets that held a large collection of Burger King Whoppers. Apparently, the Burger King in the parking lot had made all of these burgers but not enough soldiers showed up to eat them. The civilians said that by law, the restaurant owner couldn't keep them to sell the following day, so he had to throw them out. The civilians promised they would find the burgers a home for the evening and asked if we knew of anybody that would like some.

Well, we just happened to have at least a hundred people working a shift in the Army Operations Center and those people are always starving. So each member of Bruce's staff grabbed a couple of Whopper paint buckets and hauled them into to SCIF and announced a feeding frenzy. I was literally tossing Whoppers like slow pitch softballs across the AOC to the hungry mob. Sometimes, I actually hit the target.

A New LAN

Days after 9/11, military and civilian personnel had finished collecting the salvageable computers, servers, and networking gear that went offline as a result of the plane crash. These represented some of the 32 communications systems briefed in the AOC on that first day. We put them into an empty basement data center room that used to host mammoth mainframes back in the day. Prior to the crash, these computers were scattered throughout the building. But now, we moved all of them to this centrally located space. We put them on the floor and reconnected them with power cables, extension cords, and ethernet cables. The wiring looked like some giant spider had spent the afternoon building a web in there. It all smelled like jet fuel. The first time we turned everything on, sparks flew through the air.

First Trip Home

The weeks went by in a blur. There were always 15 more things that we needed to do to keep the AOC humming. I can't remember the first time that I went home. It must have been days after. I remember arriving late in the evening (the kids were already in bed asleep), hugging Kathy for a good long time, taking a nice hot shower, putting on a fresh t-shirt and shorts and falling into bed. About a minute later, Kathy says that I jumped out of bed and headed down to my youngest's room (Kime - Almost 5 years old), picked her up and hauled her back to our bedroom where I put her on my chest and fell right to sleep.

Shower - It's good to see ya

Weeks later, the chaos had subsided to a normal rhythm. Randomly, I would find myself blinking back tears at the enormity of it all. 2,977 Americans died that day from the four terrorist flights. At the Pentagon, 64 passengers from Flight 77 and 125 people who were inside the Pentagon at the time lost their lives. Within a month, somebody hung a very large picture at the Pentagon entrance. It showed the fire crew, some soldiers, and a couple of civilians, only hours after the crash, draping a giant American flag over the outside of the Pentagon adjacent to the crash site. It choked me up every time I saw it.

I attended numerous memorials during these days just after the event. At one, an officiating general said something that really stuck with me.

He was commenting on the weird reunion-esque quality that an assignment at the Pentagon had before 9/11. Senior officers and enlisted who ended up at the Pentagon late in their careers had met a lot of people at that point. As you walked the 17 miles of Pentagon hallways, you would inevitably run into somebody from a previous unit, spend a moment catching up on careers and family, and depart saying something like "It's good to see you." The general said the phrase had new meaning these days. When you run into an old colleague, you are generally delighted that they are alive and healthy. "It's REALLY good to see you."

After a while, we all started going back to the Pentagon gym to burn off some steam. I was in the shower after one workout and saw an old friend of mine, Paul Abel, showering in the opposite corner. We went to basic training together, the Military Academy Prep School, West Point, and we were both stationed at Fort Polk on our first assignments as Second Lieutenants. We hadn't seen each other in years. We were so excited to see each other alive that we met in the middle and gave each other a robust brotherly embrace, completely naked, in the gym shower room, surrounded by other naked military personnel. So, that happened.

Final Thoughts

Here we are, 20 years later, wondering what it all meant. It's not hard to see the aftermath: longest US war in history, countless lives lost from the ranks of US military and DOD civilians not to mention the collateral damage to the local populations where we operated, enormous monetary costs, and arguably, a giant hit to the American exceptionalist myth. On the other hand, the event was a showcase for how some Americans embody that American exceptionalism ideal: the passengers of Flight 93, the NYC Firefighters and first responders, the Walter Reed doctors and nurses, the woman who took our phone numbers so that our spouses could stop worrying, Al Nieder, John Quigg, the restaurant owners in the Pentagon parking lot, and my entire AOC communications team.

That one day of shock and fear, 20 years ago, started it all. Whatever happens next is anybody's guess. But on 9/11 2021, we can finally close the book on this phase.‌

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