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Remembering 9/11

In light of the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we are reposting an AMSUS blog post from AMSUS Executive Director Vice Adm. Michael A. Cowan that he wrote on Sept. 10 last year:

I am writing this on September 10, 2015, looking forward to participating in a memorial for 9/11 which will be held at the Navy Medicine HQ tomorrow.

Some of you know that I was the Navy Surgeon General from 2001 to 2004, assuming the office on August 10, 2001.  Most prudent leaders believe in the rule of “keeping quiet until you know what is going on.” I have always had the personal policy of staying as quiet as possible for 30 days, then setting my strategic goals for the organization.  On September 10, that task was complete.  I had five major goals for command emphasis during my tenure as leader of Navy Medicine ready to roll out to my staff.

The following morning (you have already done the math I hope) was such a beautiful, sunshine drenched autumn day that we left the doors and windows of the Headquarters’ main conference room open to relish the delicious weather.  Halfway through our routine morning leadership meeting I was called out by my frantic staff telling me that the United States was under attack, and that two skyscrapers in NYC had been struck by jumbo jets.

Even to now, that fateful day marks a stark dividing line between everything which had occurred prior, and the events after.  And for many, the world continues to be utterly different.  I think that must have been the way Americans felt on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.

In short order we heard the collision of the third jet into the Pentagon just across the Potomac River, followed closely by the local and sharper bang of a car bomb near the State Department across the street (officially denied by local authorities).  We thought we must have missed the memo that a war had started.

The sight of the plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon against the otherwise preternaturally blue sky was surreal.  My first profound thought was “well, you just don’t see this every day…”   Even to now, that fateful day marks a stark dividing line between everything which had occurred prior, and the events after.  And for many, the world continues to be utterly different.  I think that must have been the way Americans felt on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.

I took three actions immediately:

  1. Gave an order to tighten base security to maximum security posture; and released all designated “non-essential” personnel to go home.
  2. Walked into my office, picked up the list of five priorities and threw it into the trash.
  3. Summoned Force Master Chief Weldon and sent him to the BUMED signals locker for new flags.

For years preceding that day, Navy Medicine’s motto was “Standing by to Assist” and that message in flag code flew outside all Navy Medical Facilities.  Master Chief Weldon returned with the appropriate signals, whereupon we struck “Standing by to Assist” and raised “Steaming to Assist.”  And it remains today.

Then I gave more orders for personnel to go home.  Few had obeyed the first one.  Someone suggested that nobody wants to be called “nonessential,” but I don’t believe that. I think that all hands were desperate to do something – to help in whatever way possible.

Towards the end of the day some of the personnel who had run to the Pentagon returned to the office.  One in particular, CDR Steve Frost had started the day in a crisp summer white uniform, and after several forays into the burning Pentagon to retrieve casualties, he looked like he had been rolled in an ashtray.  Steve was one of many who risked everything to help their shipmates at sometimes great peril to themselves, but I remember his valorous compassion in particular.  And I feel proud to this day to have been the leader of the likes of such people.  Then we launched the USNS Comfort hospital ship to support New York City.

But that’s another story.