WASHINGTON – Pentagon workers don’t need ceremonies to remember Sept. 11. They’re reminded of it every day when they walk in the door.
But ceremonies are what the military does, and since the Pentagon Memorial is off limits Sunday to everyone but the 9/11 victims’ families and officials, in the center courtyard on Friday a few hundred of the building’s 23,000 workers braved a light rain to hear Defense Secretary Leon Panetta deliver commemorative remarks and a bit of a pep talk.
“On September 11, this building was transformed -- transformed into a battlefield,” Panetta said, standing in front of a giant American flag from the World Trade Center.
The hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 killed 125 Pentagon workers when they crashed the jet into the building.
The victims came, Panetta said, “from the Army, the DIA, the Navy and the OSD. Those men and women represent the full spectrum of our community: civil servants, contractors, military personnel. They were innocent men and women who shared a common dedication to serving our nation, and who lost their lives because of that dedication.”
“Had it not been for the heroic actions of many that day at the Pentagon,” he said,” the human toll would have been far worse.”
Panetta had breakfast Friday morning with several first responders who were on the scene that day, and he praised the “men and women who dragged colleagues to safety from the horrible fire that consumed that part of this building,” and “individuals who ran towards the fire, not away from it.”
Panetta also thanked “those who made sure that the Pentagon kept functioning that day,” from military commands to the engineering and maintenance staff that enabled most of the building to be open the next morning, he said, “even as firefighters continued to battle the blaze and conduct a search and rescue operation.”
Sept. 11 put the building on a war footing that has continued through the killing of Osama bin Laden. The entire Pentagon renovation started before the attack finally was completed, but with the addition of more security barriers and ID checkpoints and 9/11 remembrances. The defense secretary’s staff no longer wears combat fatigues, but most servicemembers here still do. It remains a bustling place.
Just a few hundred people filed out from their offices and stood quietly in the drizzle to catch “the SecDef”’s quick remarks. More watched from the windows or tuned into the Pentagon Channel at their desks.
When Panetta said, “The terrorist who provoked that horrible attack on 9/11 has met his just end,” the quiet crowd responded with steady applause. Panetta called the kill “one of my proudest moments in 40 years of having been in this town.”
“Nobody, nobody attacks this country and gets away with it,” he said. “We dealt al-Qaida a major blow with the operation that took down bin Laden, but please make no mistake – make no mistake, violent extremism remains a deadly threat. We are dealing with their threats as we speak. Terrorist are determined to attack this country. We must never stop being vigilant….we must never stop until we have been able to ensure that terrorists have no place to hide and that they no longer represent a threat to this country.”
Panetta finished speaking, and though the ceremony continued, most people quietly turned around.
Back to work.