On Sept 9, 2016 two of the surviving original first responders of the Pentagon attack on September 11th, 2001, Sergeant First Class Larry Byrd Jr. and Colonel Roy Wallace visited Wakefield School in the Plains Virginia to offer a raw yet heartfelt presentation of the events occurring that awful morning, that they witnessed and experienced firsthand; being not only survivors but first responders on the scene there at the Pentagon, recounting in vivid and sometimes shocking detail that which so many of us only witnessed on TV.
I arrived at the school a few minutes late, and was escorted in as the presentation had already begun. A staff member led me in quietly, and I carefully stepped around the students and parents to find a good location to photograph and observe the presentation from. As I situated myself quietly, Sergeant Byrd was just being introduced so fortunately I was able to witness his entire presentation. It was difficult at times to hear, yet nonetheless inspiring as the accounts of bravery that accompanied the tragedy reminded me of how many Americans find the highest in themselves in our darkest moments.
Using slides on a large pull down screen he began by introducing himself in a humble yet jovial manner all the while warning all in earshot, “My story is not a clean one”; preparing the students for the experience they were about to hear about from one who witnessed it firsthand. A large, almost towering figure he was nonetheless quickly able to put the students in the room quickly at ease with his sage like calming presence not to mention his easy going and often self-deprecating humor. He began showing slides, talking about the event, and as I photographed not only him and his slides from the Pentagon, I also noticed and photographed the faces of the students around me, which transitioned slowly from pleasant smiles and sporadic laughter to a humbled, solemn reverence. Sgt. Byrd recounted important milestones, such as an evening brief that was supposed to be held by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but instead hosted by Fairfax County Search and Rescue and him being the only enlisted man there, and standing on the landing gear of the Jet Liner inside the Pentagon at A & E Drive. He recounted finding bodies which he described as “almost like burnt hotdogs”. He recounted how he went back in, without protective clothing or breathing equipment, the heat and smoke and toxic fumes, the screams of those inside. And how he was able to provide advice against turning the electricity back on in the damaged area of the building due to the water being so deep that if it occurred, any still alive will be electrocuted” he pointed out, as power was still on. He pointed out how he advised some may be still alive but unable to speak, having their throats and lungs burnt by the awful heat and toxic fumes.
“I think the kids were awestruck” remembered Gray Carr Griffin, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Wakefield School.
Finally, he concluded his remarks, pointing out to the students that while we may have many differing political beliefs that he as a “humble Sergeant” and all in the service of their country are bound to serve the Commander in chief whoever he or she may be, regardless of party affiliation, as it’s the office we salute more than the one occupying it. He admonished the students not to get too divided by political discord so prominent in today’s media and social media, and warned how the terrorists can win the most when we allow ourselves to be divided by discord over political differences and not stand united against them and their wanton disdain for human life. He reminded us that the freedoms we espouse and embody as a nation are worth fighting for, and worth standing together as a nation regardless of political differences. He asked the students and all listening to never forget that fateful morning nor the sufferings and sacrifices made by those who have fought and died for them and for those in uniform now who fight to secure and maintain the freedom we believe in. He challenged us to stand together as one people, one purpose and move away from the divisions the media loves to promulgate on a daily basis making us appear as a divided nation to our enemies. He reminded us we were all one people, under one flag, and that at the end of the day we all believed in one common ideal. One common bond. Freedom.
Following Sgt Byrd’s amazing and moving presentation, Mrs. Karen Theobald Conlin, Civilian Aid to the Secretary of the Army presented to the school and Headmaster David Colón a US Flag, which was the first flag flown in the first “Green Zone” in Iraq, flown over LBN Sina Hospital. She presented the flag to Headmaster Colón and the school, with these words.
“On behalf of the Army, and in my role as a CASA, I have secured the first flag that was flown over Ibn Sina Hospital in Iraq’s Green Zone as a special commemorative item for the school. Our troops secured this hospital and used it for the treatment of service members, civilians and hostile regime members (Saddam Hussein). This flag will forever be a remembrance of the Army story and the many heroes that serve our nation in perilous times.”
Following Col. Wallace presented Headmaster Colón with a CAD drawing of the locations of everyone that day in the Pentagon, then Headmaster Colón closed with remarks of thanks while reminding the students they had an exam to attend. And just like that, this amazing presentation was over.
As students and teachers rose from their seats I couldn’t help but notice that the students, rather than rushing off to their exam, instead began filing in line one by one to shake the hands of the towering Sergeant Byrd who gladly greeted each pupil as if they were the only student in the room. Some parents and teachers filed into the line as well and Sergeant Byrd graciously shook the hands and spoke briefly with each one, yet clearly his focus was on the students, always encouraging them to do well while telling each how proud he was of them. Proud of their attendance and reverence, proud of what they were doing with their lives, and just how darn proud he was of them as the future of America. He said they were what we were fighting for. And he reminded them, to never forget.
I didn’t file into line to shake hands, I was there to observe not meet and greet. Instead I quietly slipped out the back door and hurried on my way to yet another assignment. But as I sat in my Jeep out in the parking lot, parked on a steep hill, … I mused for a moment on the events I’d just witnessed. And perhaps ironically my Jeep suddenly wouldn’t start. And for a few minutes I waited, trying it again and again, all the while causing to me to ponder just a bit longer on the events I’d just witnessed and the account I just took in, almost as if life, fate, God, … was telling me just as Sergeant Byrd had told us all only moments earlier to remember that fateful day. And to never forget.