Sept. 11, 2001, started out as an ordinary day. My wife had planned to hold a meeting at the Pentagon that morning. She worked in a budget position at the Defense Intelligence Agency. I was a retired "Colonel Mom" at home with our three young preschool children.
The night before, our daughter had been up all night with an earache. Early that morning, she begged my wife to take her to the 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment I had made for her. So, my wife called into work and asked them to delay the meeting until 10 a.m. and have someone else chair the meeting. Fortunately it was delayed, because that morning, the office where the meeting was to be held was destroyed by the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
All morning, while my wife and daughter were at the doctor’s office, the phone rang as the personnel in her office called to check in and confirm that they were all right. Several had been out of the office when the plane hit; others were assigned to government offices in the Washington, D.C., area. I received a call from a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who worked for my wife. She called to say the man who had replaced her at her previous position in the Pentagon had been hit by the hijacked jetliner. All personnel in that office were killed.
Her replacement was a young Navy lieutenant with a 1-month-old baby. She was driving to the lieutenant’s home to stay with his wife until they had more information. She said she would call me back as soon as “things settled down." I hung up as my eyes started to tear up. Several hours later, she called me back, sobbing, and said she would be staying overnight with the widow. We both hung up and I had a short cry, because I felt the baby was crying for the father he would never know. I do not cry easily, as I was a hardened U.S. Marine Corps non-commissioned officer and Special Forces NCO before I was direct commissioned as an intelligence officer. That day was truly, as FDR said about Pearl Harbor, “A Day of Infamy.”
My wife returned later that afternoon, but many did not. We all went to bed as a warm and save family again. The next several days were a whirlwind of people contacts, morale improvement efforts, and funerals. In the office where the meeting was supposed to be held, seven DIA employees were killed and many survivors were badly injured by smoke and flames. I was grateful that by being a good mother, my wife was spared from the direct disaster.
I worked in the Pentagon as a civilian intelligence officer some years earlier for the U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, along with my wife. We sometimes took our lunch breaks to eat at the Pentagon Center Pavilion snack bar. While there, I noticed the huge fir trees were depositing their seedlings under their massive branches. I dug up some of those seedlings and transplanted them under the Southern pine tree growing in our Northern Virginia front yard. Our house in Virginia was built many years before by a U.S. Army colonel on the very ground that had been a part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation/estate. Those trees thrived in that fertile ground, which had once been a large corn field.
When I moved to Tahlequah in 2006, I brought five of those “seedlings,” which were by then over 6 feet tall. I planted them and dedicated that small grove as a 9/11 Memorial. We placed a small marble monument with a brass plate next to the trees, which is inscribed as follows: "Dedicated to the seven fellow Defense Agency Intelligence Officers that lost their lives on 11 September 2001 at the Pentagon Washington DC. May their deaths not be in vain and we reaffirm the need to defend our country and Constitution."
When you pass our house at 350 Academy St. in Tahlequah, don’t ask yourselves who those candles are burning for. They are not just for those seven DIA employees killed in that office. To paraphrase Earnest Hemingway: Those candles are burning for all U.S. Citizens who strive to be honest and happy in their pursuit of a “good life,” like “Private Ryan” strove for. He was saved by many fellow soldiers who gave their lives for him. May we all be saved.
Lt. Col. S.L. “Hack” Hackworth is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and was a non-commissioned officer for Special forces.