Attack on the Pentagon Remembered

By Chaplain (Colonel) James A. Buckner, USA RET

On September 11, 2001, I was serving as the Director of Plans, Policy Development and Training for the Army Chief of Chaplains. The day began like other days. I had arrived to the office at a normal time around 0630 and had begun to plan the day’s activities.

It was around 0850 that my Administrative Assistant Darlene came into my office and said “someone has flown a plane into the Trade Center.” I went into the conference room and watched with horror as we saw images of a plane slamming into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. While I was still watching, we saw another plane slam into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. By then, everyone that was in the office had gathered in the conference room and was glued to the large monitor on the wall. I left the room to go back to my office.

When I was the Fifth Army Chaplain stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, we had routinely trained four chaplain teams to respond to natural disaster and weapons of mass destruction. We had two teams focused on the Eastern U.S. and two teams focused on the West. It became apparent to me that this was an event in New York that we might be called upon to send teams to assist the local assets on the ground. I needed to alert Forces Command to contact these four teams and have them prepare to deploy if needed.

While I was on the phone with the Forces Command Chaplain, Chaplain (Colonel) Don Taylor, my Administrative Assistant came running into my office and said, “They have hit the Pentagon.”  I told Chaplain Taylor I needed to go but would be in touch. I ran to the conference room to see the dark black smoke rising from the impact zone on the side of the Pentagon. I knew we had to get to the Pentagon immediately.

All the cell towers went down so our only communication was on land lines. I told the civilians in the office to go home and to stay there until they received further notice. Ms. Jody Dunning asked if she could do anything. I told her that I needed someone to call all the family members of those assigned to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH) and say this: “Your loved one is safe. Expect them when you see them.” Ms. Dunning did us all a great service on that day as she was able to ease the minds at home.

I gathered the chaplains and chaplain assistants around me and told them we were going to the Pentagon. We left immediately and began to run towards the toward the South Entrance of the Pentagon. Our office was at Presentation Towers, Pentagon City, VA. Part of our office had moved there as their offices in the Pentagon underwent renovation. It was fortunate that we had not been moved back into the old offices for it was there that the American Airlines Flight 77 impacted. Many in the office has served most of their time in the now destructed wedge of the Pentagon.

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Terry Bradfield was already fielding phone calls from Army Personnel. So, I asked him to remain in the office to a single point of contact for calls coming into our office. The rest of us ran to the Pentagon. We were running against the flow of hundreds of people as they were fleeing the Pentagon. As I looked into their eyes, I saw shock and fear. I still remember one woman scolding us for still wearing our identification badges.

As we approached the South Parking area, a lone policeman stopped us and asked where we were going. We told them we were looking for the Casualty Collection Point. He pointed us to the River Entrance of the Pentagon near the Pentagon Athletic Center (PAC). On that side of the building was the Pentagon Medical Clinic. As we approached the bridged area on that side of the building, we were stopped again by Defense Force Police officers asking where we were going. We told them we were looking for the Casualties. They told us that they had changed the collection point to the other side of the building near the impact zone. We kept running. At each side of the Pentagon, we met some form of Defense Force Police. We told them who we were and where we were headed. They let us pass.

On the Mall entrance side of the Pentagon, a lone Defense Force Policeman stood on the steps of the entrance. He came running toward us asking the same question as others. He again let us pass but said, “hurry, there is another plane incoming.”

As we turned the corner and were running toward the attack side of the building, we were immediately confronted by all the debris on the ground. We were maneuvering around and over pieces of the exploded airplane. There were parts of fuselage, tires, crooked metal, and other debris. The site was beyond belief as we stood to assist in any way.

We stayed on sight most of the day and were on the sight when the side of the building collapsed. The access to anyone trapped in that wedge was over. The word was disseminated that no other action would happen until the fires were out.

The Deputy Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain (Brigadier General) David Hicks, instructed me to go back to the office to begin planning for further actions.

Around 1800 that evening, I received a call from Lieutenant General John A. Van Alstyne’s office. Lieutenant General Alstyne was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy. The caller instructed me to come to a meeting the next morning at 0900 at the Pentagon City Sheridan Hotel.

When I arrived at the hotel and entered the meeting space, the room was filled with both military and civilians. When I entered the room, the civilian at the head of the table said to me: “Thank God you are here. By tonight we need to have this Family Support Operation up and running. We will need coverage 24 hours a day.” He then left the room.

To be honest I knew nothing about setting up or running a family support operation. Fortunately, other agencies were also given a similar mission. Our operation would be to staff the center with chaplains.

In the room were Chaplains from the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Army chaplains had been in D.C. to attend a Joint Chaplains Conference. The immediate need was to get volunteers to cover the next 24 hours. By that time, we would have opportunity to schedule coverage for the rest of the weeks. There was three Navy Chaplains who were serving with the Marines at Quantico. They volunteered to cover the first night’s evening shift.

Chaplain (Colonel) Donna Weddle who was in town to attend the Joint Forces Chaplain Conference, volunteered along with others attending that conference. They promised to cover the day shift until they had to leave town. The Air Force Chaplains also volunteered to cover a shift. The Family Support Center operated for over two months and we provided Chaplains around the clock to care for anxious and grieving families.

Soon it became apparent that the FBI was going to assume control of the incident site and the word went out that they would erect a fence around that entire section of the building. Once erected they would control access in and out. This was a crime scene.

Chaplain (Colonel) Larry Racster began working to stake out a position that would be inside the fence. He coordinated for a GP large tent that could be used for church services and for counseling. He volunteered to serve as the senior controller of that operation.

This operation, known as the incident site operation would be staffed by Chaplains from all the services and would operate 24 hours a day. Chaplain Racster provided those who were working on site with a valuable resource.

It became apparent to me that we were going to need some way to schedule participants to support not only at the Family Support Center, but now at the incident site. We would soon find out that these two operations were the tip of the iceberg for scheduling. Chaplain (Colonel) Jack Anderson came to our aid. Chaplain Anderson volunteered to be the single point of contact for all schedules. He would coordinate for coverage of all operations with the Army, Navy, and Air Force. His coordinating was essential to making all the operations flow smoothly.

At the Incident cite there were two individuals that performed specialized ministry. The first I will mention was Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Jim Boelens. Chaplain Boelens volunteered to work with the FBI in the morgue operation. Old Guard soldiers would escort remains from the building and place them in a truck that would carry them to the temporary morgue. In that truck was a medical Doctor and a Chaplain. The Doctor would open the body bag and declare that the remains were deceased. Then Chaplain Boelens would pray. When the truck was filled, they would move the truck to the temporary morgue and there again they would repeat the process. This was a particularly difficult assignment, but Chaplain Boelens responded with honor and dignity.

After September 11th the Pentagon only required key and essential personnel to come to work. The metro stop at the Pentagon was closed. After two weeks or so, the Pentagon returned to full operational status. The Metro was open. On that opening day, around 0900 I received a call from a Metro Policeman who asked me to come to the Pentagon Metro station. When I arrived, he asked me “what was missing.” I could hear the train noise, the doors opening and closing but no one was talking. I responded, “No one is speaking.” He said, “exactly. When was the last time you were down here and no one is speaking.” I said “never”.

I called Chaplain Racster at the incident site and asked him if he had anyone on his site that he could release and come to the Metro station. Chaplain Racster sent Chaplain (Major) Tim Mallard to me. I instructed Chaplain Mallard to wear his beret that has his branch insignia on it—a cross. I asked him to walk among the people who were arriving to the Pentagon and to greet them. I wanted him to break the silence. Hopefully the symbol on his beret would provide them strength and comfort.

Chaplain Mallard asked me how long he was to fulfill that mission. I told him he would know.  Three days later Chaplain Mallard called me and told me it was time. I asked how he knew. He said that people were again talking to one another in the Metro. Chaplain Mallard had helped these folks break their silence and reestablish some since of normalcy.

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Art Pace was not in D.C. On September 11. He was attending meetings at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. It took him several days to finally get back into Washington. Since all planes had been grounded, Chaplain Pace eventually had to rent a car and drive back to D.C.

When he arrived, he contacted me and asked what he could do to help. I told him that there was an area that we did not have covered. Some of the casualties from that day had been sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But some of the worse burn cases were sent to Washington Medical Center. I instructed him not to focus on those at Walter Reed because they would receive Chaplaincy services there. I asked him to find those that were in the civilian hospitals and if possible, with their permission, capture their stories.

Chaplain Pace did just that. He visited these patients daily and the stories that he relayed were incredible. One patient that Chaplain Pace ministered to was Lieutenant Colonel, Brian Birdwell. Lieutenant Colonel Birdwell was burned over 80% of his body but his wife Mel Birdwell refused to give up on his recovery. They have written a book about their journey titled Refined by fire: A Soldier’s Story of 9-11, A Family’s Triumph of Love and Faith.

Our final challenge in providing help and care to those impacted by the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon was to provide a chaplain at every funeral no matter where that funeral was to occur. General Jack Keene, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army had promised the families of those who had been killed in the attack, that a Chaplain and a General Officer would attend their funeral. Our office was responsible for coordinating coverage for all those events.

Some have said that there are events in our lives that we will never forget. 9-11 is one of those events. Though the challenges were great and the hours long, the Army Chaplaincy along with our sister services stepped to the plate and provided needed ministry to those who were so drastically impacted by the terrorist attack. God provided us the strength and wisdom in those difficult days and to him we give glory.