Remembering Sept. 11
September 10, 2021
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, leadership instructor Don Fox ’75 was serving at the Pentagon as the deputy general counsel of the Air Force. The office was quiet because some of the staff attorneys were away at a conference or traveling to other Air Force installations. Outside, “the morning was filled with brilliant sunshine and the promise of fall was in the air.”
“It was the kind of morning that made one feel good just to be alive,” Fox told the students, faculty and staff gathered Wednesday for a special all-school meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
At approximately 9 a.m., his wife, Tracy, called him to tell Fox to turn on his TV so he could follow the news coverage coming out of New York. Soon the other attorneys were in his office watching and trying to make sense of what was going on.
Fox explained the Pentagon is located in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It is in the direct flight path of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Having worked at the Pentagon for more than 15 years, Fox said the 850 flights per day had become “background noise.” But as they watched the scene unfold in New York, “we all became aware of the nearby planes, just how close they were, and that they were still flying overhead.” That is when the office shook, followed a couple of seconds later by a boom.
That shaking and boom were “were orders of magnitude larger than anything any of us had experienced,” he said. He estimated it was only 20 minutes from the time Tracy had called to when Flight 77 “slammed into the Pentagon about 600 feet from where my office was located.” Fox said they couldn’t see anything out the windows facing east, but when they crossed the hall into offices looking west there was a huge plume of black smoke rising over the building.
“There are moments in your life when you realize that no one is coming to the rescue,” he said. “This was one of those moments.” With his staff looking at him for the next step, Fox said his first thoughts “were honestly of Culver. It was here as a student that I learned that the first and most important lesson of leadership is to take care of the people you lead. Period. Full stop. If you do that and do it successfully, nearly anything is possible. If you fail to take care of the people you lead, almost nothing is possible.”
He told his staff they had about one minute to grab anything they couldn’t live without and meet up at the door to their office suite. He grabbed his “high tech” Blackberry device and sent an email to everyone on his contact list. It was “There’s an explosion at the Pentagon. We are leaving the building.” One of his Culver classmates still has that message, he said.
They emerged from the building at the River Entrance. Had the plane hit that side, it would have “decapitated the Department of Defense since that was where most of the senior military and civilian leadership had their offices,” he explained. Where it did hit was still mostly empty because it had just undergone renovations. Still 125 people in the building and on the plane died. One of those was an Army colleague, Ernie Wilcher, who had delayed retirement to help raise a granddaughter and who just happened to have a meeting on the west side of the building that morning.
After walking for hours to his home in Bethesda, Maryland, Fox said Tracy, his 11-year-old son Wes and 9-year-old daughter Jody (who graduated from CGA in 2010) were in the backyard playing badminton. “It was all perfectly normal – as it should have been,” he added. His voicemail and email were overflowing with messages. The following morning, he went back to work “with the rest of the senior Air Force leadership figuring out what we needed to do next.”
Fox noted that none of the students were alive on Sept. 11, 2001, and even the fellows probably had no living memory of that day. That raises the question of “why are we here at this remembrance and why should the events of that day matter to you?”
One answer is ‘that it forever changed the world in which you grew up and are now becoming adults. It changed the life of Andy Stern, CMA ’98. Some of you no doubt rowed in the 8-person boat that carries his name. Andy lost his life in Iraq in 2004 in a war that would never have been fought if the events of 9/11 had not happened. It changed the lives of the adults here who were either serving, or who went on to serve in the military.”
And, he added, they have been reminded over the past few weeks of one of its consequences as “we saw the last American soldier leave Afghanistan. During this same period of time, we have also seen the worst and best of humanity – the worst being the suicide bombers who killed scores of Afghan civilians and 13 American service members aiding in the evacuation from Kabul. The best being the scenes of the first Afghan refugees being welcomed to an Indiana military base on their first steps to new lives in this country."
Fox said we must also remember that the events on 9/11 “were an assault on our collective humanity. Nearly 3,000 people – grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends from more than 80 countries died that day at the Twin Towers, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. They were not just Americans. The 17 flags behind me represent the countries and regions that some of you come from that also lost citizens that day. Over the 20 years since, millions of people from scores of nations have felt the consequences of the attacks that took place that day.”
In his ethics class, Fox said they talk about the virtue “Transcendence,” a moment that “stops you in your tracks or changes how you view the world. Transcendence is a virtue that can sneak up on you when you least expect it. I never looked at the world quite the same after 9/11.”
He found a sense of courage and conviction that “I didn’t know I had.” And the occasional personal slight or minor personal injustice “doesn’t bother me as much as it did before.” He is also more appreciative of the people in his life and the “short and unpredictable amount of time we all have on the planet together.” Something he was reminded of after learning a 1975 Culver classmate had recently died of cancer.
With so much that divides the world today, Fox said, “When we look around this campus, we come from all corners of the globe and speak dozens of first languages, and we have a wide spectrum of political and religious views, but we share a common language, and that is the language of friendship. And wherever we came from a place we are entitled to call ‘home’ is Culver.”
Sept. 11 is not a day to wave the flag, he said. Rather, it is “a day to hug someone you love, or send a note to someone far away, and to be grateful that today is another day you are alive and get to share your day with those you care about and who care about you.”
One of the hundreds of emails he received 20 years ago came from a Culver classmate, Fox said. They weren’t particularly close while on campus, but they have exchanged many words since that day. It was simple five-word email, “and he has sent me the same one – now by text – every September 11th. I am confident he will do so again this Saturday, and his text will simply say ‘I am glad you lived.’”