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Opinion: ‘Never Forget’

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The following story originally appeared in Proceedings, September 2011.

A decade later, a former naval officer recalls the day he was working in the Pentagon when his life—and those of all Americans—changed forever.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were the defining moments for our generation, a shockwave start to a turbulent decade. How best to mark that fateful day, and the ten years since?

Simple. Never forget.

U.S. Navy photo

U.S. Navy photo

While the memories of my 9/11 experiences are extreme, I believe our collective experiences from that day are relative and had as much impact on those who witnessed the attacks on television as they had on those of us who were in their fiery midst. What I mean by that is the event transformed us all, no matter our vantage. Wherever we were, our memories of that day cannot—should not—fade.

So let us first remember the day itself. It was a beautiful morning, to be sure. At least that’s how it started out.

It was nearly 0630, and I was commuting to the Pentagon. I recall my mind wandering back and forth from the pending work at hand and an upcoming family fishing trip. I missed my wife, an active-duty Navy lieutenant like myself; she was out of town on an assignment. I had been working for the Chief of Naval Operations staff for almost 13 months, busy with the rigors of being a very junior action officer with responsibility concerning naval strategy and warfighting concepts.

Others have in the past joked about how working in the Pentagon could nearly be considered hazardous duty, with all of the service infighting, tactful press leaks, and biting memorandums. I would soon learn just how hazardous such duty could really be.

As I swiped my identification badge through the security lock door to the brand-new Navy Command Center, I was ready to tackle the challenges of the day. It was just minutes after 0700. About one month earlier, my branch had moved from our old offices into the newly renovated “wedge.” The space still smelled fresh and new, and though cubicles dominated throughout, they were modern and clean and stocked with the latest computer equipment and electronics.

It was an interesting time to be working in the Pentagon. The administration and military services were in the final phases of the Quadrennial Defense Review , and my shop was busy supporting that effort while also being on the cusp of crafting a new naval strategy to help guide our service in the 21st century.

Our office situation was a unique one because we shared working space within the command center. The center was manned 24 hours a day by officers and petty officers whose responsibilities included keeping up with the actions of U.S. naval units deployed around the world as well as monitoring worldwide news broadcasts for events of interest. Because of our working relationship, we were constantly kept abreast of breaking news as it occurred.

Shortly before 0900, the entire Navy Command Center instantly became acutely aware of the horrors unfolding in New York City at the World Trade Center. As the television stations switched to close aerial coverage of the burning north tower, the images of raging fire and thick black smoke cascading up into a blue sky held the attention of every individual in the bustling center.

At 0903, tense, audible gasps erupted throughout the space. The situation had grown even more grave, as a second airliner slammed into the south tower with an explicitly violent crash. Standing next to my officemates, I voiced what was evident to all of us: “There’s no way that is an accident! We’re witnessing a terrorist attack on our own soil.”

We instantly checked to see what time it was, and wondered aloud just how many people were in those airliners and at work in those towers. In stunned silence, we continued to watch the events unfold on several large-screen displays located in the “watch team” section of the larger command-center space.

As the minutes passed, most of us returned to our desks, some in silence, some engaging in quiet discussions trying to make sense out of the moment, others intent on calling loved ones. I specifically recall standing beside my desk, peering over the cubicle dividers and watching the burning towers on television. The three colleagues with whom I shared the cubicle were seated at their desks, just a few feet away.

Never did any of us consider our location, the Pentagon fortress, to be at risk.

In a flash, at 0937, the entire command center exploded in a gigantic orange fireball, and I felt myself being slammed to the deck by a massive and thunderous shock wave. It felt to me as if the blast started with the outer wall facing my backside, blowing me forward and down.

I never lost consciousness, and though the entire space was pitch-black, I immediately sensed that I was on fire. While still prone on the deck, I ran my fingers through my hair and over my face to extinguish the flames. Simultaneously, I tried to roll my body in order to put out the flames I felt burning on my back and arms. As I stood to get my wits about me, I could just barely make out through the thick, acrid smoke the carnage of what had been, just moments before, a space full of my shipmates.

“A coordinated attack!” I thought. I stood for a moment in a frozen shock. My mind raced. It must have been a bomb planted by one of the many construction workers or technical contractors who still mingled about, placing the final touches on the new wedge. I called out for help, but to no avail.

I felt the flames, and the space was quickly being overcome with smoke. It burned my mouth and throat, and I struggled to breathe. My mind raced to my wife, Blanca, and the love we shared. And I was sickened at the thought of never seeing her again. “I’m alive!” I thought, and yelled out to myself, “Keep moving, Kevin! Keep moving!” I had to find a way to escape.

Would the command center’s security-lock door have failed open or locked shut in the explosion? I quickly decided it probably locked and began crawling and climbing through the flames and rubble toward the back of the space. I couldn’t see much through the darkness and smoke, but I could tell that the ceiling had collapsed and that everything around me was blown to bits. I continued to fight, crawl, and claw my way through the rubble.

Soon I came upon frayed electrical cables dangling from the caved-in ceiling, in front of broken pipes and gushing water. “Great,” I thought, “I’m now going to be electrocuted.” I managed my way just under and around the cables and found myself in what appeared to be another space, unfamiliar to me, adjacent to the command center.

U.S. Department of Defense Photo

U.S. Department of Defense Photo

As I crawled, I could see glimpses of daylight streaming through the smoke. I felt my adrenaline kick in, and I rapidly crawled over about a dozen desks, stood, and walked through what was obviously a freshly blown-out hole in the brick wall adjacent to the alley that ran between the Pentagon’s B and C rings.

Without looking too closely, I knew my hands and arms were severely burned, my skin sloughing off, blistering. As I crossed that threshold an image of the famous Vietnam War photograph of a young girl, badly burned and running naked down a road, flashed into my mind. “You’re as helpless as that little girl, Kevin,” I thought to myself as I desperately called out for help.

My calls were answered in the form of the man I call my guardian angel, Army Sergeant First Class Steve Workman, a soldier I had never before met, but whom I love as a brother today. Steve evacuated me from the area and commandeered what was likely the first ambulance to arrive at the Pentagon. One look at me was all the ambulance crew needed, and we all, including Sergeant Workman, raced off toward Walter Reed Army Hospital.

We finally reached the hospital emergency room, and as I was wheeled into the building a team of what seemed like more than 20 medical personnel descended on me, each working on separate tasks in an effort to save my life. I’m sure their actions were controlled, but I felt frantic.

As I lay on the gurney, I heard someone yell out “50 percent, 50/50 chance!” Time seemed to freeze, and I grabbed that nurse, pulled her close, and told her “No! I’m alive! I’m going to live!”

I next realized that several nurses were, with little success, attempting to remove the wedding band I wore on my left hand and the 1994 Naval Academy class ring I wore on my right. The skin on both of my hands was severely burned and hanging from my fingers. They called out for the ring-cutter. “Stop! Stop!” I cried, giving pause to the personnel feverishly working on my wounds. They did stop, and with the focus of all of my will and strength I managed to pry both rings off my fingers and handed them safely to a nearby nurse. “Okay,” I thought, “ now you can get on with trying to save my life.” It was my last conscious memory of that awful day.

I was in terrible shape, with second- and third-degree burns over nearly 50 percent of my body, and severe chemical injuries to my lungs from the jet fuel I inhaled at the moment of impact.

After emergency surgery on my arms, I was flown to Washington Hospital Center’s Burn Unit, where I was to stay for several months. A ventilator worked ceaselessly, breathing for me. I was soon strapped into a special bed that rotated constantly to keep fluids from accumulating in my lungs. Black sludge was pumped from my lungs for days and days. Innocuous-sounding “dressing changes,” which involved removing the medicated bandages and scrubbing my burns with antiseptic solutions, were performed three times a day.

But infections soon set in, and my condition worsened. Live maggots were employed to fight the infection on my arms, and one-of-a-kind antibiotic treatments were administered to fight the infection in my lungs.

On 4 October, I hit rock bottom and suffered a cardiac arrest. Dr. Marion Jordan, my burn surgeon, and the amazing nurses caring for me brought me back from a flatline. While he was explaining the situation to my wife in the unit’s waiting room, he had to race back to my room because I had flatlined again. And again, the team brought me back.

Dr. Jordan returned to my family and told it to them straight: He wasn’t confident that I’d make it through the night and suggested that I be medically retired from the Navy to secure benefits for my wife. The paperwork was signed, and my family prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more.

The next day I bounced back, and steadily regained my strength. Then, in early December, just days before we thought I’d be heading home from the hospital, I suffered a pulmonary embolism. It hit me like a freight train and I was again sent to the intensive care unit. But I recovered and returned home in mid-December.

I was a changed man, quite different from the healthy, athletic young person I had once been. But if anything, I was a stronger man inside and embarked on a daily fight to regain some sense of normality. It took over a year, but I ultimately got to a place where I could get back to work, back to making a difference.

I’ve expended a great deal of effort to ascribe meaning to all that I’ve been through, that day and since. While my reflections on 9/11 are deeply personal and are formed by the extreme experience I endured, they go beyond that. They are a continuum of memories marked by ten years of service and sacrifice by our nation’s finest.

I suspect that sense is shared by most readers of this publication, certainly by those in uniform and their loved ones—and I hope, too, by all Americans, and those around the world with the same values. I’m thankful for the unifying aspect of that continuum, the appreciation of the past sacrifices and the bond of respect for those who serve today.

On 9/11 and after, we faced adversity with indomitable spirit and unflinching resolve to press through, optimistic and committed to make our tomorrows more secure, peaceful, and prosperous. Put simply, we never gave up. That spirit is indicative of our nation’s character, our core. When faced with dire challenges, we gather ourselves, rally to the cause, and take care of business.

Author receiving the Purple Heart in a April 26, 2002 ceremony with U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Workman. Sgt. 1st Class Workman transported the author to one of the first ambulances that arrived on the scene after the crash. U.S. Army photo

Author receiving the Purple Heart in a April 26, 2002 ceremony with U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Workman. Sgt. 1st Class Workman transported the author to one of the first ambulances that arrived on the scene after the crash. U.S. Army photo

In doing so, however, each of us, and the nation collectively, risks forgetting where we have been. So, ten years after, let’s reflect fully on what we felt that day. The fear, anger, sorrow, and confusion, but also the unity and the roaring call to service. Let us never forget that sense.

A startling and traumatic reality was revealed to all Americans on 9/11, and of course that is exactly what al Qaeda sought to achieve. However, looking back over the past decade, I am certain that those twisted souls got more than they bargained for. They underestimated us, what we believe, what we cherish, who we are as a people. They were ignorant to the time-proven fact that adversity makes us stronger.On 1 May, 9 years, 7 months, and 20 days later, as Osama bin Ladin awoke to the roar of helicopters and was swiftly brought to justice by our warrior elite, the message was clear: We will never forget.

In many ways, that act of justice will forever remain symbolic of a decade defined by service, by uncommon sacrifice, and above all by courage.

I’m mindful that many of you reading this very likely have volunteered your efforts to our nation over the past ten years, in many forms, and that you will never forget the driving force behind your selflessness. Let us dedicate ourselves to ensuring that in the decades to come, we carry forward, personify, and inculcate that same sense to our future generations.

Let us remember the 2,975 men, women, and children we lost that fateful day, but also those who have answered the call of duty at home and abroad, and who have willingly laid down their lives since—for us. We honor each and every one, with the continuum of our memories that will not fade.

  • joseph p bell

    Dear Lt. Shaeffer > after leaving the 911 Commission staff were you able to look back and think that the government story was not what they said it was ?

  • James K. Poole

    Excellent reminder, marred only by the introduction of LT Shaeffer as a “former” naval officer. As an officer honorably retired for medical reasons, he remains an officer, albeit in a different status. Those who resign or are dismissed from the service could be considered former officers.