HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS Counting the Costs: What We Lost at the Pentagon—and What We Gained

The American Legion Magazine
April 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

It was 6:42 p.m. on September 11, and with the nation teetering somewhere between shock and panic, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped in front of the cameras. “The United States government is functioning in the face of this terrible act against our country,” Rumsfeld announced. “I should add that this briefing is taking place in the Pentagon,” he noted, his voice conveying a mix of grit and defiance.

The location of a press conference is usually irrelevant, but on September 11, it made all the difference in the world. Just nine hours before Rumsfeld began his briefing, an American Airlines 757 had smashed into the side of the Pentagon, carving a 200-foot-wide gash into the building and erasing an unknown number of lives. But as Rumsfeld declared, “The Pentagon is functioning. It will be in business tomorrow.”

The message was unmistakable, and it was intended as much for a domestic audience as a global one: The United States is scarred but standing, bruised but unbowed.

In the long months since then, most media outlets have limited their Pentagon coverage to military briefings, while scouring the World Trade Center ruins for stories of horror and hope. Perhaps that’s understandable, given the magnitude of the carnage in Manhattan. In sheer numbers, the human toll at the Pentagon pales in comparison to what happened in New York City. Likewise, the swath of destruction in lower Manhattan dwarfs what the terrorists did to the Pentagon. But in another sense—one that cannot be measured in lives or dollars or debris—the Pentagon attack was just as profound, and the story it has to tell is just as important. The wound may be smaller, but for the U.S. military it goes much deeper.

A Sturdy Symbol

To understand why the wound cuts so deep, it may help to look at the Pentagon through the eyes of history. The Pentagon is a national landmark, a workplace for 23,000 people, a military command center—and after September 11, a combat zone, a crime scene and a patch of hallowed ground. 

It was built during World War II. In fact, construction of the massive 29-acre building began on September 11, 1941, exactly sixty years before al Queda terrorists tried to destroy it. The brainchild of Brig. Gen. Brehon Sommervell, the roofed-city consolidated a War Department spread across 17 different buildings. It was completed in January of 1943 at a total cost $83 million, which included the construction of some 30 miles of roads and highways.

For the next 27 years, the Pentagon was the largest building in the country and one of the largest on earth. However, the World Trade Center would wrest that title from the Pentagon in the early 1970s. Of course, in one of the grim ironies of September 11, the Pentagon regained that unwanted distinction after the attacks.

Like the World Trade Center, the Pentagon was targeted because of what it represents. It is a symbol of America’s freedom, diversity and, yes, power. No other country in history has so often or so feely used its military power to help others. As a consequence, the U.S. military has made its share of friends—and enemies. Within those five walls, Americans have planned peacekeeping operations for Kosovo, Bosnia and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save Berliners, Bangladeshis, Somalis and Kurds; far-flung rescue missions to defend Korea, Vietnam, Panama and Kuwait; and the defeat of German fascism, Japanese militarism and Soviet communism. As Rumsfeld concluded on the one-month anniversary of the attacks, “It is no exaggeration of historical judgment to say that without this building and those who worked here, those…regimes would not have been stopped or thwarted in their oppression of countless millions.”

Unlike the World Trade Center, the Pentagon is not particularly pretty. It doesn’t gleam in the sun or turn many heads. It’s squat and rather bland from ground level. It’s functional, not formal, sturdy and stoic rather than sleek or sexy. When Flight 77 hit the old building at 350 mph, it was the plane’s skin that peeled away like a banana—not the Pentagon’s. In fact, the outside of the 757 remained at the impact point, pieces of it strewn across the heliport, while the inside of the plane bored into the building.

The Pentagon burned and buckled, but like America it endured. And like America, it stands today, in open defiance of its enemies and attackers. In this way, the Pentagon may be a more appropriate metaphor for the nation than the twin towers that once soared over Manhattan.

One Building, Many Missions

Even as the Pentagon smoldered on that dark September morning, the men and women who walk its labyrinth of halls and tunnels were racing to defend the country from another wave of terror. It’s a testimony to their strength—and the building’s—that they were able to do their jobs amid the chaos.

In fact, even before the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center, the military had scrambled two F-15s from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts. They were airborne just after the first tower was hit, but they were still eight miles away when the second plane delivered its blow. Soon, fighter jets were hurtling skyward all across the eastern seaboard. A pair of F-16s out of Langley Air Force Base screamed toward the Pentagon, but they arrived too late to save the Pentagon’s western wall.

Almost immediately after the first wave, NORAD began combing the skies over North America, the Pacific and the Atlantic for erratic or hostile aircraft. Dubbed, “Noble Eagle,” this mission of homeland defense continues today. U.S. warplanes are flying an average of 1,875 sorties per month to protect us from another September 11.

However, that represents only half the Pentagon’s post-September 11 mission. On October 7, the president ordered the military to launch America’s counterstrike against terror. As Rumsfeld put it, “The only way to deal with these terrorist threats is to go after them where they exist.”

Conceived inside the severed skin of the Pentagon, Phase I of the War on Terror was enormous in its reach and fearsome in its effects. In the span of four weeks, the Pentagon assembled and deployed a massive task force of warplanes, aircraft carriers, Special Forces troops and Marines halfway around the world. Then, in a matter of five weeks, that force erased what it took the Taliban and al-Queda five years to build.

Simultaneously, U.S. forces swooped in to rescue the war-weary innocents of Afghanistan from starvation. In the final three months of 2001, the United States provided $187 million in relief to the friendless Afghanis, airdropped 2.4 million meal rations and helped deliver another 127,000 tons of food and water over land.

With Phase I now behind it, the Pentagon is swinging its sights to the other spawning grounds of terror—the Philippine jungles, the deserts of Yemen and Somalia, the familiar terrain of Iraq.

Final Roll Call

Remarkably, the Pentagon team did—and continues to do—all of this without the services and expertise of 235 of its best and brightest. The attackers killed 125 Pentagon employees and injured 110. (Another 64 people died aboard Flight 77.)

The Army bore the brunt of the dead, losing 22 soldiers, 46 civilian employees and six contractors. The Navy lost 33 sailors and nine civilians. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported days after the attacks, the Pentagon dead also included officials from the Defense Intelligence Agency and other sub-agencies of the Department of Defense.

We’ve heard a great deal about the heroes at Ground Zero, and rightly so. But there were also heroes at the Pentagon. As Rumsfeld reminds us, “The people who work in this building do so voluntarily—they’re brave people.” In Navy Secretary Gordon England’s view, their acts of bravery were among “the first acts of defiance against the enemies of freedom.” At this writing, 22 sailors and Marines have been awarded medals; four have received the Purple Heart. The Army has awarded 25 Purple Hearts and 25 medals for bravery. The Air Force has given two Purple Hearts. In addition, dozens of civilian employees have been honored with various commendations and awards, including the newly commissioned Defense of Freedom Medal, a civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

The roll call of those who died during the Pentagon attack, like the military itself, is a reflection of America—a computer technician, an engineer, a writer, a designer, an accountant, a lawyer, a lieutenant-general, a sailor, a soldier, a Vietnamese immigrant, a fifth-grade teacher and her students, a Cub Scout den leader who held meetings at an American Legion hall. And the list goes on; it includes almost 200 names, each with a story and a family. Indeed, family is one of the many threads that connects those who were left behind: 146 children lost at least one parent in the Pentagon attack.

Even so, it could have been far worse. Initial estimates were as high as 900 killed and thousands wounded. As Lee Evey, head of the Pentagon modernization program, explained soon after the attack, the section that was hit had just undergone major renovations, which strengthened the building’s outer skin. New sprinkler systems contained a fire fed by 20,000 pounds of jet fuel. Blast-resistant windows, Kevlar-lined walls and fresh beam-work withstood the guided missile Flight 77 had become. “Had we not undertaken this effort in the building,” Evey concluded, “this could have been much, much worse.”

Equally important, with the renovations barely complete, a large portion of the targeted area remained empty. According to Evey, “We were in the process of moving almost 5,000 people into wedge one,” which turned out to be the impact site.

“Brick by brick,” President Bush has vowed, “we will quickly rebuild the Pentagon.” Reconstruction is expected to cost at least $700 million. Evey’s army of contractors and builders intends to finish the job by spring 2003. However, the Pentagon will dedicate a memorial to its fallen on the one-year anniversary of the attack. 

A Fearful Thing

Most of us cannot begin to grasp the personal loss of September 11, but given the trail of death and destruction described above, it’s not particularly difficult to understand why those who survived the attack are so committed to avenge their dead. Indeed, they are driven by an anger that burns white-hot—the kind of anger a mother feels when her child is killed or kidnapped, the kind of anger a husband feels when his wife is mugged, the kind of anger that unleashed Gettysburg and Dresden and Nagasaki, the kind of anger that doesn’t flicker or smolder until victory is won.

You can hear the anger in their words, which remind friend and foe alike that a wounded America is something to be feared, not pitied: “We won’t forget these people…Their deaths shall have meaning …We will remember their lives…We will retell their stories, again and again…We will finish the job…We will relentlessly pursue the terrorists…The wound to this building will never be forgotten …We will take the battle to the terrorists…We will fight and we will win …We will not fail.”[1]

Their words give us a sense of what President Wilson must have felt as America marched into World War I: “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war.”

Their anger reminds us, too, that despite the immeasurable loss of September 11, we also gained something when the Pentagon was attacked. We gained a new confidence and an old sense of patriotism. As Rumsfeld intoned in his eulogy at the Pentagon, the victims of September 11 died because they were Americans. “They died because of how they lived—as free men and women, proud of their freedom, proud of their country and proud of their country’s cause.”

We gained a new appreciation for men and women in uniform, whether they serve overseas, behind a desk, in a squad car or on a fire truck.  And with our cities transformed into battlefields and pyres, we have gained a bitter understanding of the price of freedom. Perhaps now we understand what veterans mean when they say, “Freedom is not free.”

The Task Ahead

September 11 altered much more than the Pentagon’s façade and Manhattan’s skyline. What was once a splintered country is now a united people. What was once a global financial center is now a heap of rubble. What was once a heliport is now sacred ground.

As President Lincoln said of another piece of fire-scorched earth, “We cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” To paraphrase Lincoln, it is left to us to finish the great task ahead of us—the task the Pentagon’s fallen began on September 11, 2001. Thanks in no small part to them, America is functioning today—and it will be in business tomorrow.

[1] Quotes from various sources, including Pentagon personnel, President Bush, Sen. Carl Levin , Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Eric Shinseki.