Eight years after the Pentagon was hit by a terrorist-hijacked airliner, about 300 relatives of the 184 who died in the fiery crash braved a cool and rainy Washington morning to hear President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen pay tribute to those who were directly affected by the tragic events of the day.
"We honor all those who gave their lives so that others might live, and all the survivors who battled burns and wounds and helped each other rebuild their lives; men and women who gave life to that most simple of rules: I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper," President Obama said as he faced the families of the victims. "Nearly 3,000 days have passed -- almost one for each of those taken from us. But no turning of the seasons can diminish the pain and the loss of that day. No passage of time and no dark skies can ever dull the meaning of this moment."
Toward the end of his remarks, the president struck an elegiac note: "So on this solemn day, at this sacred hour, once more we pause. Once more we pray -- as a nation and as a people; in city streets where our two towers were turned to ashes and dust; in a quiet field where a plane fell from the sky; and here, where a single stone of this building is still blackened by the fires."
But Obama also stressed that the spirit of Sept. 11 was not one of gloom or retribution, but one of unity and purpose. "Let us renew the true spirit of that day. Not the human capacity for evil, but the human capacity for good. Not the desire to destroy, but the impulse to save, and to serve, and to build," he said.
Adm. Mullen, the first speaker of the morning, offered the most personal remarks of the three speakers. "Who among us can ever forget where we were, what we saw, how we felt as citizens and as a nation?" he said. "I myself remember the shudder and the smoke, the shipmates I lost, and how the whole world changed that day."
He echoed Obama’s remarks about hope for the future. "Let us face that future with the same resolve our men and women in uniform exhibit, the same courage with which they serve and struggle to ensure another day like that day never happens again," he said. "Eight years of war has changed our troops and their families, but it has not bested them," he went on. "Indeed, it is difficult to describe the selflessness I see when I visit them in the field and in the fleet, in hospitals, and here at home."
Gates, in his brief remarks introducing the president, referred to a new program led by Lisa Dolan, who lost her husband, Navy Capt. Robert Dolan on Sept. 11. She and others will lead tours of the Pentagon Memorial. Dolan helped found the Pentagon Memorial Fund and serves on its board. Dolan approached other Sept. 11 families and has gotten about 50 volunteers who live nearby to participate in a docent program. Dolan has said she hopes to get others who were at the Pentagon that day eight years ago to join the program and lead tours. "She and other 9/11 family members have added something poignant and profound to this program," Gates said.
After the speeches, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, moved slowly down the front ranks of the families. There were no hugs this time. People seemed eager to speak with the president and his wife. Most of the family members smiled and chatted as they came by.
As the president left, the rain ended. Some of the families strolled through the memorial, pausing by the bench marking their loved ones passing. As they left the area, they passed the memorial’s American flag flying at half mast in honor of those who lost their lives eight years ago today.