SCNG Commander Shares 9-11 Experience with Hermosa Beach Crowd
By Col. Charles Helwig, SCNG
/ Published September 13, 2010
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Editor's note: The following speech was presented at the dedication of a memorial bench in Hermosa Beach marking the 9th Anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center. The bench contains one button for each person killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Students from Hermosa Valley School's Kiwanis Builders Club collected the buttons for the bench.
Good afternoon, and thank you Mayor DiVirgilio, Police Lieutenant Thompson, members of the Hermosa Beach City Council, and citizens of Hermosa Beach for allowing me to say a few words this afternoon.
Today, we are standing over two-thousand miles from Southern Manhattan and the Pentagon. Like time, distance can isolate us from tragedy and triumph, suffering and heroism. Like you, my family and I were far from both New York and Virginia on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. I'd like to share with you what happened that day--and the next few weeks--in Europe, where my family, along with two thousand other Americans in Belgium, felt the events.
The instantaneous reaction where we worked--at the headquarters of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--was no doubt the same as many other public buildings: get out and get home, especially since NATO headquarters is two miles from the runway at the Brussels International Airport. There was such a crush of traffic that most drivers couldn't even get out of the parking lot. My wife called to make sure I'd heard about what happened: I told her that we'd seen the second plane crash in New York on CNN; she asked if I thought NATO was a target; we said "I love you" to each other. Rumors spread wildly, leading many to believe that NATO was a very likely target as well. This was compounded when a jumbo jet that had taken off was directed to return to Brussels, but not all agencies "got the word" as we'd put it. The Belgian Air Force and its civil aviation authorities took some time to sort that one out. So in the meantime, we, like many of you, sat silently watching the television.
My boss was the senior Army officer in Belgium, a two-star Major General: he was rushed to the embassy to meet with the United States Ambassador. His wife was about two hours away with a friend; his children were supposed to be on their way home from school. His house was also one block from the Iranian embassy. My wife called me again: our children were home, and she was going to get my boss's youngest child--a fifth-grader--and bring her to our house.
When the Pentagon got hit, well that's when we started to wonder if anyone we knew was dead. My wife called me again: would I be able to get a call through to her best friend, whose husband worked at the Pentagon.
I can't remember much more of September 11th: for us it was almost 3:00 in the afternoon when the first plane hit. My wife will tell you I got home late, and that later that day we learned her best friend's husband was safe.
The next day, and again in early October, NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. The phrase "invoking Article V" probably doesn't leap off the page as a dramatic act. But it is the most dramatic statement NATO has ever issued in its history. It was originally written to deter the Soviet Union, stating simply, "armed attack against one or more of the Allies in Europe or North America shall be considered as an attack against all." This was why NATO was created. Article V was never before used: not during the Berlin Wall crisis, not during Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia or Hungary, not during the break-up o f Yugoslavia the war in Kosovo. As professional American statesmen and soldiers, we'd always felt that an attack against the United States was the least likely of all events that would be an "attack against all."
That same day, my boss learned of the death of a close friend--another US Army general--at the Pentagon. He asked me to close his door for a short while.
On Thursday the 13th, on the orders of Queen Elizabeth II, the Star-Spangled Banner was played during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
On Friday the 14th of September, Europe stopped in still silence for three minutes to express its sympathy and solidarity with us, and the families of those who died.
That same day, we re-opened the Brussels American School, where our children in grades Kindergarten-through-12 all went. Armed--rather, very armed--security guards and US Army personnel checked and inspected everyone and everything that came onto the school grounds. Those of us with children at the school were detailed one day a week to ride the bus to and from the school. We wore civilian clothes and were issued cell phones.
Even today, the reaction of our European hosts surprises me. You've probably seen periodic news clippings showing public mourning in Europe: flowers and candles at city or national landmarks. After 9/11, many Belgians--as is customary--brought flowers to the American embassy. What isn't customary was what they did next: they brought flowers to individual American's homes.
To me though--the part of all of this that truly got to me--was a book of condolences. Someone--I don't know who--placed a small book on a table in the NATO lobby. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of Europeans wrote their thoughts. There was one phrase that repeated itself intermittently, one that we as Americans may have heard before, but certainly never in sympathy:
Nous sommes tous Américains; Wir sind alle Amerikaner; Todos somos americanos; We are all Americans.
2,973 people perished on September 11, 2001. Victims came from more than 80 countries. All who were killed died working and living the American dream.
They were all Americans.
Hopefully this bench gives an opportunity for all Americans to sit, take a moment and remember their personal story on what he/she was doing on the 11th of September 2001. For in remembering, we honor those who were directly and indirectly involved.
This is the first time I've told this story. I'm humbled to share it with you today.