September 11, 2021
Flags are displayed during a Sep 11 memorial service at CUA.

The Catholic University community came together in a two-part memorial for the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

On September 10, the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services held a memorial ceremony in conjunction with Campus Ministry, College Republicans, College Democrats, Young Americans for Freedom, and the three units that Catholic University is affiliated with: the Air Force ROTC Detachment 130, the National Capital Region Naval ROTC Battalion, and the Hoya Army ROTC Battalion. The ceremony included a joint color guard of all three ROTC units and remarks by Stephan Murphy, the Director of Military and Veteran Student Services who is an Afghan war veteran and current Army reservist.

On the morning of September 11, the College Republicans, College Democrats, and Young Americans for Freedom planted flags on the Pryzblya Center Lawn to commemorate the fallen. Campus Ministry, with the help of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, rang the Basilica’s bells at the time of the impacts of the attacks that happened 20 years ago.

On September 11, 2001, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., was the president of The Catholic University of America. He reflects on the attacks in this essay and in this podcast.

Remarks from Stephan Murphy, Director of Military and Veteran Student Services

Good afternoon to you all, especially to our honored guests CAPT Meyers & LTC Person.

To Father Jude, thank you for the honor of being the speaker for today’s ceremony to share my reflections. It is a great testament to this University that so many leaders, organizations and people would take the time to reflect on the events of September 11th, 2001.

In studying and thinking about history, our perception of events are colored by the intervening ones. We do this because we know how the story ends, of what decisions will be made and what events will lead to. In thinking of history, our minds naturally draw causations between events, but in doing this presents a fundamental flaw. When thinking of September 11th, you may have subconsciously began thinking about former President Bush, the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. Perhaps you thought about the recent events at the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul or about President Biden’s strategic decisions. However to fully understand America of the last twenty years, it cannot be done without taking time to think about September 11th, 2001. In cursory reflections on history, we lose sense of the moment- the stories, the feelings, the emotions & the impact of them in the present moment.

Once the generations who experienced events such as these fade from the world’s stage, the memories of them become the contents of history books as opposed to the stories and memories of parents, siblings and friends. For example, the phrase “Remember Pearl Harbor” has gone from a visceral, national rallying cry to in the minds of many, a historical anecdote. To the people who lived through events such as 9/11, they were generational shaping flashpoints. That is why I want to focus on the granular stories of September 11th today.

When surveying the undergraduates of this university, most were born between the years 2000 and 2003 and so the events of September 11th, 2001 belong to a time that was really “before them.” This is by no fault of your own- I was born weeks prior to the Berlin Wall collapsing- but I confess that in my nursery I did not have any profound thoughts on the Fall of Communism and its impact on the world.

On September 11th, 2001 I was living in central New Jersey in the far reaches of the New York suburbs. Many people who I went to school with had parents working in New York City, I even had an Uncle who worked blocks from the World Trade Center. After the attack, my middle school was huddled into the gym and everyone was dismissed to try to regroup with their families and make sense of the chaos.

Weeks later, my Boy Scout Troop would run car washes to help raise money for the first responders in the City. There was solidarity and collective grief, a reflection of the indomitable American spirit.

My experiences on September 11th were not extraordinary. However, there were many that were & that need to be remembered. There are a few I would like to highlight today:

As we all know, three hijacked aircraft struck the World Trade Centers & the Pentagon. But a fourth had also been hijacked, in the words of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (the planner of the attacks), Flight 93 would have flown into the US Capitol building (where congress was in session) if the attack was not thwarted by brave group of passengers. A collection of total strangers, who took action to stop further violence. After attempting to re-take Flight 93, all aboard perished when the aircraft crashed in rural Pennsylvania. The passenger uprising, we believe, was led by Todd Beamer- an IBM sales representative and Sunday school teacher. His last recorded words of “Let’s Roll” were heard over an inflight phone line and became a rallying phrase for Americans years after…it was even my Middle School Lacrosse team’s break the huddle phrase.

What is not as well known about the Flight 93 story was that in the middle of the chaos, two F16s from the DC Air National Guard were scrambled to prevent the plane from crashing into the Capital building, the White House or somewhere else within metropolitan Washington, DC. Due to the short timeline to react, the two aircraft took off with no time to arm themselves before flying to intercept the hijacked aircraft. If need be, the plan called for these pilots to stop the Boeing 757 aircraft by ramming it head on prior them entering the airspace in the National Capital region. The act would have certainly led to their deaths, but in the process would have saved countless people at the potential impact site. When later interviewed by the Washington Post, Heather Penney one of the F16 pilots activated for this mission said

“I’ve been called a hero for what I was willing to do. But I’m not special. I just happened to be standing at the Ops Counter when we finally got the call. The truth is, any one of us would have made the same decision, would have been willing to do exactly what I was prepared to do – and to do what the passengers on Flight 93 did do. Why? Because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves.”

Another story I would like to highlight is that of Rick Rescorla. Rick was born in the United Kingdom and as a child volunteered with American Army units marshalling for the D-Day invasion near his home town. After a long admiration for this country, he took the step to not only immigrate to the United States but join the US Army and go to Officer Candidate School. As an Army officer, he distinguished himself as a Platoon Leader serving under LTC Hal Moore in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, one of the largest battles the US Army participated in in the entire Vietnam War. His personal image is on the cover of Hal Moore’s book “We were Soldiers once…and young”…which would later be adapted into the Mel Gibson movie “We were soldiers.”

Hal Moore would say that Rick was one of the best platoon leaders he had ever seen during his Army career, and during his time in Vietnam Rick would win the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. After his time in the service, Rick entered the private sector and was named the Head of Security for Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter’s South World Trade Center Complex. In evaluating the security threats to the World Trade Center (which had previously been attacked and almost destroyed by a Car Bomb in 1993), one of his first priorities upon taking this position was re-vamp the evacuation procedures for the building and pressured his company to move its headquarters to 3 or 4 smaller buildings in Northern NJ. From his analysis, the World Trade Center was far too dangerous of a target for terrorism. Morgan Stanley leadership did not agree and cited the costs which the company would have accrued in breaking the building lease as a reason for denying his request. Despite the probable annoyance of his co-workers, Rick put Morgan Stanley employees through frequent building evacuation drills during his time as Head of Security. When the attacks occurred, the company was prepared. Under Rick’s leadership, Morgan Stanley was the first company to evacuate the World Trade Center after the first impact. Of the over 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees in the building- all but thirteen survived the day. Rick however, was not among them. After his company evacuated, Rick—by this time a 62 year old man battling bone marrow cancer, was last seen running up the stairs past the 10th floor of the building- going room to room to ensure his every single person who could be, was evacuated. Despite in person pleas from his co-workers and phone calls from his best friend and wife, Rick would not leave the South tower while he knew people needed help. His wife Susan recounted speaking to Rick moments prior to the South Tower’s collapse, in an appropriately titled piece in the New Yorker called The real Heroes are dead. Rick, who at this time must have been in hellish circumstances said to his wife “I have to get these people out…if anything should happen to me, I want you to know you made my life.”

These stories, while emotionally jarring serve to help give context to the men and women who have joined the military during the Global War on Terror. I have had the privilege and blessing to lead Soldiers in Afghanistan twice, Soldiers who truly believed in the mission and in our country. In my charge, I have had Soldiers who immigrated to this country from Ethiopia, Micronesia, Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, The Philippines and Iraq. Yes, Iraq – I can’t pass over this footnote of history. One of my riflemen, immigrated to the United States after sectarian violence in his home of southern Iraq in 2006. After becoming a US citizen and earning his bachelor’s degree he decided to join the Army and become an infantryman. One night while deployed, I asked him frankly what led him to choose a path which ended up with him being in a Combat Outpost in Afghanistan and he told me that America had taken care of me when I desperately needed it, and I wanted to give back. These people believed in the America that Heather Penney and Rick Rescorla believed in- and we owe it to them to make sure it continues to exist.

To finish, I would like to focus on the remarks made by St. John Paul II – the Pope at the time.

Addressing the faithful at St. Peter’s he said the following:

“The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ's word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.”

I thank you all for your time, and I thank you again Fr. Jude for giving me this opportunity to speak.