PETERSON SPACE FORCE BASE — On Saturday, we mark 20 years since the attack on the United States, September 11, 2001, a day that changed the course of American history, yet again. For those who were the targets of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., they have a unique perspective on what happened that day, particularly those who were at the epicenter of power in this country.
Case in point, General James Dickinson, the current commander of U.S. Space Command at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. 20 years ago, General Dickinson was a Lieutenant Colonel, working in the Pentagon as part of the National Military Command Center, supporting the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, who answered directly to President George W. Bush on how to assess what happened that day and how to respond.
Like so many of us, General Dickinson was at home, having just finished his shift at the Pentagon, when the attack occurred, he told me, "turned on the TV, and I saw what had happened, I saw the planes strike the tower in New York City, and I thought to myself, what am I doing sitting here at home, so, got myself into my uniform, jumped in my car."
Easier said than done to get back to his post at the Pentagon, which had also been hit. Understandably, chaos inside and outside the complex, he says a drive that normally takes him a half-hour, took hours. He was able to get his security clearance and return to the command center, but as he walked to his post, "as I went into the building, totally different than what I'd ever seen before, where the aircraft hit, struck the Pentagon, it was very much like what we saw up in New York City, in other words, people running to the incident rather than running away from the incident."
As horrific an attack as it was, 184 people ultimately died at the Pentagon, including friends of General Dickinson, he later learned, he had a job to do, a job he and so many others were trained to do, make sure this nexus of national and international communication was functioning properly so our national-level leadership team could function in a crisis.
He said that power was out to a large portion of the Pentagon, extensive smoke, fire, and structural damage, but it was across the complex from where he was working, so redundant systems kicked in, allowing them to operate under relatively normal conditions, "and I walked into the Pentagon, got into the national military command center and I could hear the President, he was on a phone call and they were talking about the situation as it was unfolding and making some decisions".
Critical decisions as you can imagine, amidst a mood the General recalls as somber, but serious. Collectively, air traffic was grounded across the country, fearful of another possible attack from a hijacked airliner, locking down military installations and other high-security targets nationwide, not to mention trying to figure out who did this and why. But the initial reaction among General Dickinson and his colleagues at the time, understandable, "when we saw that, yes, we were shocked, but I will tell you, we immediately went from a feeling of that to what do we need to do next"
In addition to the immediate and focused response of his team, across the Pentagon complex, General Dickinson says it was all hands on deck to deal with a horrific scene, and he praised the response of the military and volunteers inside the building and also first responders from Northern Virginia, who worked tirelessly to save lives. He told me even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pitched in, doing what he could to help those assisting in the emergency response.
One of the big takeaways for General Dickinson is the harsh reality of what happened, how were these terrorists able to infiltrate this country, commandeer major airliners and use them as weapons of mass destruction, he says it was a wake-up call in so many ways for this country, "So I think it's a recognition that we're vulnerable, that we can be vulnerable and I think we've taken that away from 9-11 and some of the actions, some of the organizations we've developed, stood up, as I mentioned, U.S. Northern Command, and there are others as well as well as capabilities that we've built have allowed us to address those vulnerabilities."
On the grounds of Peterson Space Force Base sits a memorial in front of U.S. Northern Command, a reminder of that day and the sacrifices made that day and in the years since. The memorial has a piece of an I-beam from the world trade center in New York and it has a plaque attached to a concrete foundation shaped like the Pentagon that reads, in part, "From the ashes of the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, arose Northern Command", to improve our national defense capabilities and defend our liberty, and the last line reads, "Let Us Never Forget."
And General Dickinson says the most important point to remember as we reflect this weekend, there has not been another attack like the one on 9-11, on U.S. soil in 20 years, thanks to the sacrifice made by our men and women in uniform, an all-volunteer force, some of whom might be struggling right now given this important date in U.S. history, and the changing circumstances in Afghanistan, with the U.S. withdrawal from this country's longest war. General Dickinson wants to remind all of our active duty and veterans, they are not alone, their service matters.
"We've lost a lot of people both in the attacks that day and over 20 years of combat, and I think we always must remember them and the sacrifice they made to make this country a safer place, really the world a safer place."
General Dickinson will be one of the keynote speakers at a 9-11 remembrance ceremony on Saturday at Peterson Space Force Base. Joining him will be retired Air Force General Ed Eberhardt, the first commander of Northern Command after it was established in 2002, and the current commander at Northcomm, General Glen VanHerck.