The searing events of Sept. 11, 2001, left an indelible mark on a generation who witnessed the tragedy, and its horrific images from terrorist attacks that will forever be etched in our memories as one of the darkest hours in our nation’s history. In the days and years afterward, “Never Forget” is the rally cry of a nation mourning its own while continuing to drive forward in an ever-evolving, turbulent world.
Twenty-two years later, members of the West Point community took a moment to reflect on those who perished that day and servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the years that followed during the West Point Remembrance Ceremony on Sept. 11 at Trophy Point on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy.
Among those in attendance were members of the West Point Band, the Cadet Glee Club, a bagpiper from the Cadet Pipes and Drums, firefighters from the West Point Fire Department (Directorate of Emergency Services), the Garrison Command, the USMA Command team, Highland Falls Mayor Joseph D’Onofrio, Town of Highlands Supervisor Bob Livsey, West Point staff and faculty, congressional staffers from Washington D.C. and three special guests who were heroic on that fateful day and beyond.
The commemoration of 9/11 began at 8:46 a.m. as the event narrator, West Point Band member, Sgt. 1st Class Erin Beaver, remarked the exact time of the first plane attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. At that moment, a WPFD firefighter tolled a bell five times, marking the first attack.
After the first bell rang, West Point Band vocalist, Master Sgt. Carla Loy Song, sang the National Anthem with music played by the West Point Brass Quintet, which transitioned into the invocation by Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Kari Maschhoff.
Maschhoff often reiterated two words that would be the theme of the 30-minute remembrance event, “We Remember.”
“As we remember the horrific events that occurred 22 years ago, a ruthless attack on our nation’s homeland that resulted in large scale death and destruction … on this September day, we remember the heroes who responded to the cries for help, those who rushed toward the sound of fire putting their own safety to the side to care for others in need,” Maschhoff said. “On this day, we remember those who gave of their lives to save the lives of others. Lord, on this day, we remember … help us, Lord, to never forget.”
The keynote speaker for the event was West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland, who thanked everyone who gathered for the ceremony to “remember the tragic events of this day 22 years ago and honor the memories of those fellow Americans we lost in the attacks.”
The 9/11 attacks resulted in a total of 2,977 casualties across New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. This figure encompasses 2,753 individuals who lost their lives in the aftermath of the plane strikes on the Twin Towers, 184 victims from the Pentagon attack, and 40 individuals who perished in the crash of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. According to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, over 300 New York City firefighters succumbed to Ground-Zero related illnesses and injuries, in addition to the 343 brave responders who lost their lives on 9/11 itself. Furthermore, more than 2,400 military servicemembers lost their lives in the years following 9/11 while serving in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Gilland welcomed three special guests to the event who were all first responders who took part in the rescue and recovery efforts on 9/11 and the days following – William Soto, Mike Ginquitti and Rafael Giordani.
“We’re honored to have you here today, and thank you for joining us,” Gilland said to the NYC first responders. “Thank you for your service and heroic efforts on that fateful day.”
It doesn’t matter who you were on that day, living in the United States or abroad, you were in some way affected by 9/11, whether it was immediate or long term, but as history shows, its affects will be remembered through the course of time.
“History is replete with dates and events that shape a generation, actually generations,” Gilland said. “Sept. 11, 2001, is one such date. What began as an ordinary Tuesday would over the course of that day change the world as we know it and become a day that would forever be anything but ordinary. It changed my life; it changed our families lives as it did for many of you who are out here today.”
Gilland described how the events of the morning seemed like a blur, but at the same time, it seemed to unfold in slow motion. He talked about American Airlines Flight 11 crashing in the North Tower, then United Airlines 175 crashing into the South Tower. Then, American Airlines Flight 77 being flown into the Pentagon, a place, Gilland said, that “many of us undoubtedly knew friends and teammates.”
“Before we could catch our breath from that news, we learned of the plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania – an attack thwarted by the bravery of the passengers aboard that flight who fought its hijackers,” Gilland said. “It’s a day whose events are forever burned in our national consciousness and whose emotions are forever burned into our national soul. Our world turned upside down that morning, as we struggled to make sense of the senseless. We remember the shock and sadness of that day, the despair and destruction and the anguish and anger, and we remember the more than 3,000 souls who were lost to us.”
We Remember …
From those acts of egregious cowardice by the terrorist attackers came the remarkable acts of extraordinary courage by many who sprang into action that day to rescue others.
Gilland remembered police officers Soto and Ginquitti and the legions of other first responders who rushed to the scene to secure the area and evacuate victims.
“We remember those first responders who gave their lives in the line of duty that morning like Brooklyn Firefighter Steven Siller, who we’ll honor in a couple of weeks at the Tunnel to Towers Run in New York City,” Gilland said. “We remember the many citizen Soldiers from local National Guard and reserve units – like Staff Sgt. Rafael Giordani with the 145th Maintenance Company – who responded to the scene and were mobilized in the aftermath to provide search, rescue and recovery support at Ground Zero, as well as security of critical infrastructure and installations in the region, which included West Point.”
Gilland referenced that among the ruins of the attacks, we as a nation saw resilience and resolve to overcome our plight.
“We remember that in our darkest hour, the best of America shone forth, demonstrating to the world and especially those who sought us harm that in the face of tragedy, one of our greatest strengths is how we rise to master the moment,” Gilland said. “Heroes walk among us in moments of crisis and that despite our differences, we are united by a cherished set of ideals that defines us as a nation and a people, and when those ideals are threatened, we will always come together to protect them.”
Gilland talked about the solidarity, sympathy and friendship that America found in the global community and how President George W. Bush consoled a nation that was hurting while reminding us that “while these attacks shook the foundations of our biggest buildings, they cannot shake the foundation of America.”
“While those acts shattered steel, they cannot – and did not – dent the steel of American resolve,” Gilland said.
Gilland reflected on those who came forward to volunteer for service and answer the nation’s call to duty in the first days and months following 9/11, and those who continue to hear the call today and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Without hesitation, they chose to stand in the gap against those who threatened us,” Gilland said. “Among those who answered that call to serve, we remember the thousands of young men and women who came to West Point to join the Corps of Cadets, willingly committing themselves to lead the sons and daughters of a nation at war.
“We remember our fellow graduates and our fellow Army teammates who served and led with honor and distinction around the world,” Gilland added. “We especially remember the service and sacrifice of the more than 2,400 brave Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in our nation’s defense, including 13 servicemembers in the final hours in Kabul.
“We remember our brothers and sisters of the Long Gray Line who gave the lasting measure of devotion – Col. Brian Allgood, Lt. Col. Jaimie Leonard, Maj. Tom Kennedy, Capt. Matthew August, Lts. Laura Walker, Emily Perez and Derek Hines – and so many others,” Gilland concluded. “We remember the families of the fallen, the parents and siblings, spouses and children, we continue to remember them, and we are forever grateful to them for their sacrifices.”
Gilland spoke to the cadets in the audience, who either were not born that day or have no memory of what took place, but as they learned about 9/11 in class or in a TV documentary, he said, “For you all, that day shaped the world that you grew up in.”
“While we may no longer be a nation at war, we do not live in a world without threats, whether it’s threats to our nation or threats to our values and ideals,” Gilland explained to the cadets. “Each of you are here because you have committed yourself to selfless service, and to the duty that we have to the American people to protect and defend our nation, our values and our ideals.”
As Gilland completed his speech, he reminded everyone that Sept. 11, 2001, is not just another date in a history book and reminded everyone in attendance that we should not let it become such.
“We have a responsibility to remember the events of that day and honor those lost to us,” Gilland said. “We must do more than simply remember but rather we need to recommit ourselves to why we serve, and to the ideals and values that unite and sustain us, and to pass that on to future generations – so that we will always be one nation, a nation that is indivisible, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
“It means a lot to all of us here as we think about this day 22 years ago,” Gilland concluded. “What it meant to us, what it means to so many around our nation and it’s important that as events like this go on around the nation today that we continue to remember what this nation is founded on.”
After Gilland’s speech, the toll of a second bell marked the second attack on the World Trade Center’s South Tower. A moment of silence followed to remember all the victims and their families who were affected by the events of 9/11.
The moment of silence was ensued by the sounding of the “Final Alarm,” commonly called, “Striking of the Four Fives,” which is a final alarm that is “a poignant and solemn tradition within the firefighting community, signifying the ultimate sacrifice made by a firefighter who lost his or her life in the line of duty,” Beaver said during her narration, and then added, “Today, it will be sounded in memory of all the first responders killed in the attacks.”
Following the alarm, the Cadet Glee Club sang “Mansions of the Lord,” with a lone bagpiper from the Cadet Pipes and Drums playing, “Amazing Grace,” in honor of the fallen to an emotionally charged audience.
Four cannon volley rounds were fired in memory of the citizens lost on the four planes that were used in the attacks, calling out each plane in the order it crashed during each volley.
“God Bless America” was sung by Master Sgt. Carla Loy Song, followed by “The Army Goes Rolling Along” by the Cadet Glee Club with the final words of the event spoken by Maschhoff in-between both musical performances.
“Lord, today, we have stopped to remember with bells, alarms and cannon volleys, we have sought to honor and remember those victims and families who were affected by these events,” Maschhoff said. “We have sought to honor the first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. May we as a nation be drawn together as we were on those dark days 22 years ago, and may our Army keep rolling along, supporting and defending our nation, our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and may faith and allegiance to the same never falter. Amen.”