Tuesday 28 February 2017

Grief and message of defiance at seat of military power

Toby Harnden in Arlington, Virginia

AT precisely 9.37 am, exactly a decade after a hijacked Boeing 757 had slammed into the building in front of them, survivors and relatives of those who died in the Pentagon silently bowed their heads in remembrance.

The point of impact was marked by a huge American flag, above which were silhouetted six figures with weapons and binoculars scouring the distance. After 'Amazing Grace' had been sung, a wreath was laid at each memorial bench commemorating the victims -- 59 for the doomed souls on board, 125 for those who died inside.

It was a ceremony marked by profound grief and pride. At times, there was also a distinctly Old Testament air of defiant revenge -- this was, after all, the seat of American military power attacked in a manner reminiscent of the 1941 strike on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.

"No music can assuage, no tongue can express, no prayer alone may dampen the yearning that must fire yet inside you," said Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Lives ended in this place. Dreams were shattered. Futures were instantly altered. Hopes were tragically dashed."

He added: "From this place of wrath and tears, America's military ventured forth as the long arm and the clenched fist of an angry nation at war. And we have remained at war ever since, visiting upon our enemies the vengeance they were due."

In front of him were 1,600 people, including 1,200 relatives of victims, who had gathered for the private ceremony at the building in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington.

As they listened to the speeches and music, passenger planes taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport roared across the sky -- a reminder of the way planes were turned into deadly missiles in 2001 but also of how normal life was continuing 10 years on.

Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, pointed out that rather than damaging the country's values, the attacks strengthened America's "liberty, equality, tolerance and fairness".

Mr Panetta said that "al Qa'ida tried to weaken us, but instead they made us stronger."

Vice President Joe Biden, his voice at first a whisper and later a shout, spoke of American resilience. "It's a basic American instinct to respond to crises when help is needed to comfort the afflicted," he said.

Afterwards, relatives walked to the benches for private moments remembering those they had lost.

Donn Marshall, his arms around his son Drake (13) and daughter Chandler (11), paused at a marble tablet marked with 184 names to recall his wife and their mother.

Shelley Marshall (37), a Defence Intelligence Agency analyst, died instantly when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Mr Marshall said that when he found his children at an evacuation point "it was the happiest moment of my life and then it became the worst.

"When I got here the gash of the building was right where the flag is there. Shelley's office was at the other end of this facade 100 yards away. I knew something was wrong because Shelley was not at the daycare to get the kids."

That night was "the hardest decision I ever had to make" -- whether to keep looking for his wife or go to look after his children. "I thought, 'They're wondering where their parents are and I don't know if Shelley's in there or in hospital.' I thought the kids needed a parent and Shelley would want me to go to them."

Three days later, she was confirmed as dead. Mr Marshall said that although he still feels anger each day, there has been some healing over time.

Irish Independent

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