Pentagon Memories of 9/11

On a patch of land in Northern Virginia, the morning sun streams through young crape myrtles and casts shadows across a cool gravel surface. Perfect rows of smooth steel and granite benches — 184 in all — line the property with grace and symmetry. Beneath each bench, a small pool of water babbles with life.

Until 9:37 a.m. each day. For a minute, the water stops moving.

This is the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. The moment of silence marks the time on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building and claimed the lives of 184 men, women and children. One victim’s name is permanently etched into each bench.

“It’s a very tranquil place,” says C. Andrew Ammerman, senior executive advisor to the Pentagon Memorial Fund’s board of directors. “The designers wanted to memorialize the events of 9/11, but also pay special tribute to each of the individuals who were lost — on the plane and in the Pentagon.”

Dedicated Sept. 11, 2008, the memorial lies at the exact location where the flight struck the exterior wall of the Pentagon. Like Ground Zero in New York, it’s considered sacred ground by countless Americans, but no one feels the memorial’s importance more than the families of the victims themselves.

Bound by Tragedy

Shari Tolbert remembers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, all too well.

She had sent two of her three kids off to school. Every day, about 8 a.m., she spoke briefly by phone with her husband,Otis “Vince” Tolbert, a naval intelligence officer who worked at the Pentagon. That morning, she told him how their 18-month-old son, Anthony, was running into the parking lot of their apartment building and she had to pull him back: “It’s your son. He’s misbehaving.” Then Vince had to go, and she hung up.

When news surfaced later about the attacks on the World Trade Center, she knew Vince would be busy. She pulled herself away from the TV to start her daily routine. At the time, she worked in the afternoons at USAA as an insurance specialist.

Only when a friend called did she learn of the attack on the Pentagon. All she and her family could do was wait, hope and pray. Five agonizing days passed before Vince’s death was confirmed.

Now, 12 years later, she says each passing anniversary of 9/11 is like a “delicate dance.”

Honoring the Fallen
Pentagon: The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorialwas the first national memorial dedicated to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Memorial Fund is planning to build an adjacent visitor center, containing a more comprehensive account of the attacks.World Trade Center: A National 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center is open in New York City, and a complete museum covering the events of 9/11 is slated to open next year.Pennsylvania: The Flight 93 National Memorialhonors the victims and heroes who died preventing a terrorist strike against a third target. The memorial covers the spot where the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pa., and is administered by the National Park Service.

“On one hand, 9/11 is very private and personal to us; it’s how we lost the center of our family. You want to hide it and hold on to it,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s this national experience as well. There was a huge shift in our country and the world that day, so you can’t minimize that. It’s ours to share with everyone.”

When Tolbert visited the Pentagon Memorial — just steps from where her husband perished — she was touched by the many lives symbolized there.

“You realize that every bench represents more than one individual. Each one is a family, and they all have a story,” she says.

Moving On, But Never Forgetting

Similarly, many visitors bring their own stories to the memorial.

“For some service members, 9/11 is the reason they signed up,” Ammerman says. “They come here and see it firsthand. Others who currently work in the Pentagon often come out here during lunch, and reflect on the friends and colleagues they lost.”

The memorial also educates younger generations about the historical significance of 9/11. It provides a “teachable moment” about the importance of our military and civil servants, Ammerman says.

Amanda Tolbert, who was 9 when she lost her father at the Pentagon, has grown up with those lessons. Now 21 and a student at Georgetown University, she hopes to follow in her dad’s footsteps and make a career as a civilian in military intelligence.

“The world remembers Sept. 11 on its anniversary, but for us it’s a day-to-day reality,” she says. “There are constant moments where you wish that your dad was around, and I find those smaller moments are when I miss him the most.”

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