Sunday, September 21, 2008

Civilian Leaders Make Emotional Pentagon Memorial Visit

Civilian leaders in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference wrapped up the first day of their Pentagon visit here today with an emotional walk through the new Pentagon Memorial dedicated less than two weeks earlier to honor victims of the 9-11 Pentagon attack.

Dusk was beginning to settle over Washington as the business, civic, community and academic leaders from around the country walked among the 184 benches, each bearing the name of a man, woman or child lost in the attack.

They paused to reflect on the granite and stainless steel benches, 59 facing the Pentagon to represent the passengers killed on hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and 125 facing the opposite direction to represent those killed in the building.

Several of the benches had flowers on them left by earlier visitors.

The stop at the Pentagon Memorial after a full day of briefings and tours was particularly meaningful for some of the JCOC participants.

David Burke, managing director of DEPFA Bank in New York, was in a building next to the World Trade Center the morning of the 9/11 attacks. He remembers going out onto the street and seeing the disaster all around him – fires burning, sirens wailing and people jumping out of windows to escape the chaos.

Burke counts himself lucky, knowing just one person personally who perished in the attack.

Walking through the Pentagon Memorial brought back painful memories of the losses of 9/11, but also memories of the kind of heroism he witnessed firsthand. "It makes you think about all the people here that day who rushed toward catastrophe when everyone else's instinct would be to rush away from it," he said, a tear in his eye.

Like Burke, Judge Carol Hansen of the Oklahoma Court for Civil Affairs, felt a personal connection to the Pentagon Memorial. She and her neighbors in Oklahoma City experienced what until 9/11 had been the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil on April 19, 1995.

Hansen reflected on the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum that honors the 168 people killed in that attack, and said she hopes the Pentagon Memorial helps bring solace to those who lost loved ones there. "But how do you ever really find solace after something like that?" she said. "It's something none of us can really say we understand, because we just can't."

Other JCOC participants who walked among the memorial called it a fitting tribute to the memory of those lost on 9/11. "It's meaningful and it's elegant. It's a good place to reflect," said Alan Bersin, chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority in California. "This is really extraordinary."

Earlier in the afternoon, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told the participants it's critical that the United States stand up to violent extremists who attacked on 9/11 and have every intention of attacking the United States again.

"Do you know why 3,000 people died that day?" he asked. "We lost 3,000 people that day because the guys who did it didn't know how to kill 30,000 or 300,000 or 3 million. But they would have if they could have."

England said the only way to confront the terrorist threat is head-on. "I am absolutely convinced that if we ever get off the side where we are no longer on the offense, we will be in serious trouble," he said. "When [extremists] are on the offense and we are on the defense, we lose. You cannot play defense, not in the United States of America."

The JCOC participants visited the Pentagon today before beginning a weeklong trip through U.S. European Command to observe military operations aimed at stopping terrorists and other threats.

The first U.S. defense secretary, James V. Forrestal, created the JCOC in 1948 to introduce civilian "movers and shakers" with little or no military exposure to the workings of the armed forces. Nearly six decades later, it remains DoD's premier civic leader program.

Participants are selected from hundreds of candidates nominated by military commands worldwide and pay their own expenses throughout the conference. JCOC participants are selected from hundreds of candidates nominated by military commands worldwide and pay their own expenses throughout the conference.

This is just the second year that the conference has included visits to U.S. installations overseas.

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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