By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 10, 2021) -- The 9/11 attacks made most Americans who are old enough to remember both confused and angry about what had happened. The attacks weren't just on people or buildings, but on the nation's guiding ideals of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Early that morning, two aircraft hit the tallest towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. At 9:37 a.m., another plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 184 innocent individuals both onboard the plane and in the building. Less than 30 minutes later, another plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks was working at the Pentagon that day, and her son was enrolled in the child care center there, as well. She said she and her son were lucky to get home that night, adding that it took hours to make the trip. But the following day, she said, she knew America was back on its feet.
"On 9/11, the next day, and in the months and years that followed ... we saw this Pentagon community respond to that attack with incredible resiliency," she said during a memorial event in the Pentagon courtyard today. "We saw resiliency through acts of selflessness: Pentagon employees and first responders on that day who worked to rescue survivors and fight through an inferno. Incredibly, they rushed into danger, just as they did in New York, into the suffocating black smoke and unbearable intense heat."
Even after the attack on the Pentagon, Hicks said, the building never closed.
"That night, Secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] held a press conference to let the American people know that the Pentagon would continue to operate," she said. "There was the resiliency through duty. That next day, like many other employees, I headed back into this building. The Pentagon, in fact, has never closed its doors fully since the completion of its construction."
While planners in the Pentagon worked out America's response, construction crews worked endlessly to put the building back together, Hicks said.
"The team's goal in [the Phoenix Project] was to rebuild the damaged sections of the building and have it ready to be staffed within one year," she said. "They put a large digital clock up, and it displayed to the construction team the remaining days, hours and minutes until September 11, 2002."
Hicks said crews worked tirelessly to complete that task -- some putting in 20-hour days. That effort, she said, didn't just result in them meeting their goal -- it resulted in them beating it.
"Incredibly, that work of the Phoenix Project was finished in August of 2002, more than three weeks early," she said. "And as we are here commemorating the 20 years since the attacks, this is a fitting moment, I think, to rededicate ourselves to that resilient spirit, one that seeks to act selflessly, uphold our duty, and is dedicated to perseverance."
The planning of America's response to 9/11 began almost immediately. Following the attacks, said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deaths of Americans in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville united the nation in an effort to rebuild and defeat those who had both perpetrated the attack and those who harbored them.
"All these people inspired a generation who responded to the call of our nation, as one, to fight and defend our way of life," Hyten said. "[It's] a generation that has fought tirelessly to defeat terrorists and terrorism in Afghanistan and around the world. And for more than 20 years, we successfully prevented another major attack on our homeland. Never before in our history has America asked so much over such a long, sustained period of time of an all-volunteer force. We kept our nation safe."
The U.S. ceased operations in Afghanistan at the end of last month, and those who fought in Afghanistan have strong feelings about what happened there, Hyten said. But one emotion they should all have, he said, is pride.
"We feel every emotion that you can imagine: anger, frustration, confusion," he said. "But we also feel pride -- pride for doing the job our nation called us to do; pride in doing it right and doing it well; pride in doing it as one nation."
The job of American servicemen and women is not done now -- nor will it ever be, he said. Every American who puts on a military uniform has committed to a job that continues for as long as they are in the service.
"We must continue our hard work to protect the lives of all Americans, our country, the values we cherish," he said. "We must stay ready and resilient. So, I thank you for your commitment to our country; I thank you to everyone who serves, and I'm proud of everything that you do to defend this nation, our citizens, and our way of life."