9/11 alive in Pentagon memory

Amid reminders, workers channel grief, guilt into jobs

September 11 Remembered

September 08, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Along the Pentagon's gleaming and seemingly endless corridors, the reminders are everywhere.

Framed crayon drawings by child well-wishers. Quilts memorializing the unspeakable loss. Photographs of the dead. Plaques commemorating the event. Even, on one rebuilt wall, a chart of the offices of the Army's chief of personnel. It shows, desk by desk, who sat where on that tragic day five years ago. Who was on vacation. Who lived, who died.

Sept. 11 is a living memory here, painful but controlled and channeled into hard work.

Outwardly at least, that work goes on. Privately, it is a somewhat different story: There is survivor guilt and, among some, a painful recognition that the Defense Department did not, on that day, defend. Many fret that an attack could happen again, a worry fed by a beefed-up security force around the building. Some are afraid to seek counseling out of concern that it would jeopardize the security clearances on which their employment depends. For various reasons, many will take no part in the remembrance ceremonies here Monday.

`We stay busy'

Inside the Pentagon, where people in camouflage fatigues throng the hallways, there is a sense of being at war. And in war, grief and fear are soothed by the welcomed demands of service and duty.

"Every day I remember, simply because I work here near the point of penetration," said Army Col. Henry Huntley.

A muscular infantry officer, Huntley was working in the Army Operations Center when American Flight 77, a Boeing 757, wheeled out of a clear sky, clipped a highway lamppost, bounced off the Pentagon's clipped grass lawn, slammed at 530 mph through the building's thin limestone veneer and plowed on in geysers of exploding fuel and shards of red-hot metal and glass, killing 64 people on the airliner and 125 in the building, and seriously injuring 106.

"We stay busy," said Huntley, a 47-year-old from Atlanta. "We don't have time to dwell on it."

Asked if he'd ever sought counseling, Huntley said, "I haven't spoken about this at all" to outsiders. "I am OK."

At one of the well-guarded entrances, Pentagon police Officer Charles E. Cooke remembers the dead every day.

"How could I forget?" he wonders, glancing up at a large wall display of photographs of the victims of Sept. 11.

Five years ago, the terrifying destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, left deep trauma and an empty space in Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center once soared.

Blast and flame tore deep into the Pentagon as well. But the damage to the building has been repaired and the staff of the Army's personnel chief, whose offices and colleagues were obliterated that day, has moved back into its renovated space.

That proud defiance speaks to the reserves of strength and faith that enabled the Pentagon's 24,000 military and civilian workers to regroup - not just from physical terror and death, but from the awful recognition of catastrophic failure in their most sacred responsibility, defending the nation.

"It was an unfortunate act we weren't prepared for," said Army Sgt. Maj. Phillip Prater, who was working 150 yards from the point of impact. "If I thought about it, it'd probably drive me crazy."

Prater lost good friends that day.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said, "and the best way to honor them is to do it."

Soldiering on

But the defiance speaks as well to the ongoing trauma of Sept. 11 at the Pentagon, where even today the provision of mental health services is surreptitious because of the culture of stoic "soldiering on" and the problem of security clearances.

"I just can't be around for the Sept. 11 anniversary; it freaks me out," said one longtime Pentagon employee who asked not to be identified. "I'd go get counseling but I'm afraid for my security clearance."

Like thousands of others, her job requires her to have that clearance and, rightly or wrongly, she feels that seeking professional help would jeopardize her next background investigation.

Pentagon health officials, recognizing on Sept. 11 the need for counseling as well as the stigma of seeking it, quickly developed what they call "walking-around" therapy. Teams fan out down the hallways, casually drifting through offices, handing out cards, promising anonymity.

"People would follow us out into the hallway and take a card or say, `You ought to talk to Joe over in the corner, he's having trouble,'" said a Pentagon psychiatrist who is not authorized to speak by name.

"People just don't want to appear weak. People think it will hurt their careers to seek help," said Dr. Kenneth Block, commander of the Pentagon's health clinic.

Asked whether some had shunned help for fear of losing clearances, he replied: "Oh, sure. Clearances are a big deal." For active-duty military personnel, he added, there is "no confidentiality" in seeking counseling.

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