Twenty years later and many of my memories are photographic and vivid. However, time harbors perspective and tempers my emotions. Ten years passed before I could talk to others about the events on 9/11.
I was in the twilight of my military career, year 24 of 26 served, seven cumulatively in the Pentagon. My last assignment was as the division chief of the Army’s Legislative Liaison Office. I led 15 other legislative liaisons advocating for the Department of the Army and representing the secretary and chief of staff of the Army on Capitol Hill before Congress.
It was a postcard day in Washington, D.C. The morning was cool and crisp, set against a brilliant blue sky, and I was into my daily routine. I caught the Metro Orange Line to the Blue Line and got off at the Pentagon stop. I briskly walked to my D-Ring office to convene a meeting with my team and discuss the week’s engagements with congressional members and their staff.
I adjourned the meeting at 9 a.m., walked to the restroom, when I heard a sonic boom, felt the building shake, and then saw billows of smoke wafting through the hallways. The lights flickered, then went off. The death screams and panicked shouts followed shortly after.
I went into immediate reaction, just as I had been taught and rehearsed thousands of times over my years of service. I ran back to my office, evacuated my team to our outside rally point, and accounted for my people. All but two were present, and come to find out later, those two ran toward ground zero and saved people.
My office was the quadrant adjacent to and northeast of the kill zone. Outside, fire and smoke billowed from the ground up the west side of the Pentagon. Airplane and unrecognizable body parts were scattered all over the lawn and in the crater made by American Airlines Flight 77.
I am a combat veteran of two shooting wars. As I stood looking at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld picking up an airplane part, quizzically looking at it, I thought this is the most surreal thing I have ever experienced. It’s one thing to deploy to a combat zone knowing you are entering and having trained to operate in a lethal environment; it’s quite another for the combat zone to visit you unexpectedly and land on your fortress doorsteps. I struggled to talk about my experience because of the emotions triggered by genuine evildoers causing such tragic loss of innocent life who were my brothers and sisters.
I’m proud of our nation’s reaction and the groundswell of patriotism that immediately emerged. Our countrymen, all ages, colors, ethnicities, genders, religions, political ideologies, swelled the ranks of the uniform services hungry to lay siege on the immoral perpetrators no matter where they hid. I reveled in our nation’s unity of cause, good against evil, the righteous against the wicked. I applauded our reaction to hunting the perpetrators down wherever they may be globally and invoke justice.
Twenty years later, we grieve those young, patriotic, uniformed souls lost during our retrograde from the forever war in Afghanistan. The arc of war started by 9/11 claimed thousands of lives. The beginning was the righteous pursuit of the devil Osama bin Laden and his dark angels who brought death and destruction to our shores, a mission that turned to something else 10 years into it.
At its conclusion, we produced more gold-star families, and no matter your political persuasion, executed a tactical retrograde operation fraught with risk and predictable in terms of these catastrophic outcomes.
My perspective of 9/11 and the impact on our society has evolved. Initially, my pride soared with the unity we demonstrated as a nation to pursue evildoers. Now, the sobering fact is this forever war, at the end of its arc, represents another unifying moment in our nation’s history. A time of grief and contemplation. Woe for all those young men and women who lost their lives in service to our nation and contemplation for our obligation as the global superpower spreading our zeal for human rights and democracy.
Moreover, I’m experiencing another emotion counter to how I felt in the aftermath of 9/11. I’m troubled by our society’s incivility and the constant barrage of personal attacks. I sense unhealthy division in our country over so many issues: diplomatic and military engagements, COVID-19 mitigation, climate change, minority disenfranchisement, police reform, gun laws, government overreach and political ideology are just a few.
Acrimony is the offensive move by many, promulgated in federal and state congressional hearings, city halls, school board meetings, social media, network news outlets, opinion pages, and even at backyard barbecues and the family dinner table. I see so many trying to sow discord and pit one against the other for no other purpose than their gain. I, instead of we, is their watchword: I have this right to say and do as I please, even at your expense. This attitude and resultant behavior trickle down from adults to children, too. Just note the social pressures and bullying targeting kids that happens every day on social media.
I believe in the diversity of ideas and vigorously debating the merits of positions our countrymen choose to take. However, compromise is not a dirty word, nor is the rule of law, civility, and striving to create win-win outcomes that benefit all. They are grounding principles by our Founding Fathers. I sense many of our brothers and sisters, just as I am, are exhausted by this “we versus they” behavior exploited by many of our elected officials.
This day, 9/11, carries so much national meaning: patriotism, sacrifice, righteousness, unity. For me, it represents a day I commit to all those who were victims of and gave their life for the fight against terrorism, that my actions going forward will be to unify our country and shun those who seek to divide it. Be that leader who joins me in finding common ground and inspiring words backed by actions. Stop the animosity, finger-pointing and divisiveness. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
This conduct is the salve we need to heal the festering wounds caused by our offensive and uncivilized behavior. It will also be a welcome respite to the gold-star families for the grievous loss of their loved ones. This is how you lead, think, plan and act.
Retired Col. Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.