FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
United Airlines Flight 93 was soaring over Pennsylvania en route to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, when then-Defense Logistics Agency Director Navy Vice Adm. Keith Lippert ordered an announcement for all McNamara Headquarters Complex employees to shelter in the auditorium. Planes had already crashed into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and where the third plane was headed only God knew.
“The size of our building was a concern to me. It could’ve been a target,” Lippert said two months shy of the attack’s 20th anniversary.
Fear flooded the building’s basement as workers crowded together, some openly sobbing with worry that loved ones working at the Pentagon or on temporary duty at the World Trade Center had been caught in the horror, others gazing at overhead TVs in shock, wondering how such tragedy and blood could spill over American soil. Not one DLA employee died that day, but plenty found themselves in the crosshairs of terror.
John Morris, former supervisor of the Document Automation Printing Service at the Pentagon, was watching news anchors report on the devastation in New York City when he and his staff heard what sounded like heavy furniture moving on the floor above. Stepping outside the office, Morris saw employees running, one warning of a bomb explosion. It was hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slamming into the building’s southwest corridor.
In nearby Crystal City, then-DLA Finance Deputy Director Simone Reba was working on the agency’s plan to modernize its business systems. A colleague saw a fireball blooming in the window facing the direction of the Pentagon. Sirens blared from emergency vehicles rushing toward the scene, and guards told Reba’s group to evacuate the building. The only things on her mind: collecting her babies from the Child Development Center on Fort Belvoir and hearing from her husband, who worked at the State Department, which radio announcers erroneously claimed had been attacked, too.
“I couldn’t believe something like this could happen in the U.S. I was desperate to find out if my husband was safe and to get my kids,” she said.
Back at DLA Headquarters, Shirley Bergman, then a contract specialist for alternative fuels, agonized and wept knowing her husband was at a Marriott between the two 110-story WTC towers interviewing senior economists for the U.S. Census Bureau. And Matthew Woodruff, now a general supply specialist at DLA Distribution San Joaquin, California, was just a sophomore in high school. All but one of his teachers halted class as students watched the horrific story unfold via news broadcasts.
“I still remember how vivid it was. There was a lot of stuff my parents wouldn’t even let me watch on TV because of the nature of the event,” he said, admitting that, like most Americans, he’d never even heard the word al-Qaida until that day.
Lippert made another announcement that employees should go home soon after Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Most were eager to return the next day even as the nation mourned and despite delays from increased security.
“We always talked about warfighter first, but this really brought it home,” he said. “The whole country responded more patriotically than we’d seen in the past, and I think everyone felt the importance of what they were doing.”
The Customer Interaction Center, where agents help callers place orders and find details like supply availability and delivery status, went to 24/7 operations on 9/11. Shamon Pratt, a customer service specialist who was then an agent, remembers the phone lines being eerily quiet for a couple of days before they rang off the hook, forcing management to hire more agents to handle the influx of calls.
According to a special insert in DLA’s former Dimensions magazine, employees across the agency scrambled to assist first responders. James Burke, a driver at DLA Distribution Norfolk volunteered to drive cots to the Pentagon for rescue crews working around the clock. Workers at DLA Distribution San Joaquin, California, and DLA Distribution Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, immediately began supplying items like boots, first aid kits and tents.
The Pentagon Document Automation Printing Service crew returned to the building two days after the event to reprint papers lost in the destruction. And DLA Disposition Services staff provided truckloads of desks, chairs, conference tables and other office equipment to the Pentagon, as well as gear including flashlights, shirts and sleeping mats requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for recovery teams in New York and Washington.
“I was overwhelmed with your response and dedication,” Lippert said in a message to the workforce. “From security forces to our emergency operations cells throughout the agency, we have been there supporting rescue and recovery operations and ensuring continued support to our fighting forces.”
The Office of the Secretary of Defense upped DLA’s obligation authority to buy military equipment even before President George H.W. Bush announced the war on terror in a Sept. 20 speech to Congress and the nation. When the U.S. launched airstrikes Oct. 7 at al-Qaida and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan, acquisition specialists were already working with manufacturers to meet anticipated needs for aircraft parts, food and other items.
DLA’s business doubled from $16 to $32 billion within a year of the attack, then $40 billion another year later.
On the Front Lines
The agency took logistics to the battlefield by deploying DLA Support Teams to work alongside uniformed customers. By the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, more than 40 employees worked on DSTs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait to provide fuel, contract management, disposal services and asset visibility while fielding the latest body armor.
The forward presence and online ordering systems enabled parts that would’ve taken two weeks to expedite with long-distance correspondence back to the U.S. to be customer bound-within 48 hours. Marian Hunter, a weapons systems support manager for DLA Aviation, deployed nine times before retiring in 2017. Being able to attend unit maintenance meetings and talk face-to-face with troops helped her better solve issues.
“The end result is what we all want – well-equipped, well-protected warfighters,” she said then.
Hunter’s remarks reflected what remained on the minds of many DLA employees in the years after 9/11: doing their part to help troops fighting abroad for freedom and liberty, however long the hours, whatever the sacrifice.
Woodruff is another of the hundreds of DLA employees who’ve since left home, many of them voluntarily, to support forces in harm’s way. Though he’d never been outside the U.S. before, he deployed for eight months in April 2011 to DLA Distribution’s theater consolidating shipping point at Forward Operating Base Deh Dadi II, where he helped distribute material to units on the ground.
The nation celebrated a victory during Woodruff’s time in the warzone, and again, he saw it unfold via television. At breakfast in the chow hall On May 2, he watched President Barack Obama announce that U.S. Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11.
“I could have helped deliver the helicopter part that was used to transport those who found him. It was the littlest things – screws, washers, o-rings – that had the biggest impact there,” he said. “When you realize the part you help provide means there’s one less helicopter down, it becomes more than just a job.”
The Human Toll
Twenty years after the tragedy that tested DLA’s ability to support simultaneous wars, Lippert still remembers stepping into the Pentagon one day after the attack. He was there to meet with senior officials on the amount of money DLA would have for the next year, a meeting he was originally scheduled to attend the afternoon of 9/11.
“You could hear a pin drop. You could still smell the smoke, and there were armed guards all over the place with rifles and machine guns, something I never thought I’d see,” he said.
Weeks later, he attended a funeral for the husband of a young Army captain who worked at DLA Headquarters. The husband, also an officer, was killed in the Pentagon. Lippert listened to the officer’s mother say he’d just returned from overseas.
“She was so happy he was back safe in the United States,” he said, hesitating. “It was tough to get through that.”
DLA employees who’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 20 years say their pre-deployment training left no doubt their lives would be at risk. They deployed anyway, and all but two came home alive. Stephen Byus and Krissie Davis were both killed while serving in Afghanistan.
Byus, a civilian employee at DLA Land and Maritime and Navy Reservist for DLA Disposition Services, had already completed his required reserve duty with two tours in Iraq but volunteered for a third deployment to Afghanistan. In September 2014, he was headed downtown during morning rush-hour in a two-vehicle convoy to brief dignitaries at the Afghan Ministry of Defense when a red Toyota Corolla appeared in the rearview mirror. At a crowded intersection, the driver pulled between the two vehicles and detonated 250 pounds of explosives. Byus died instantly.
“It was obvious why he volunteered; he was a go-getter, someone you could give things to and forget about because he got them done and did them the right way,” said Jim Liberko, who led Byus’ team as a Navy Captain but is now head of DLA Logistics Operations’ reform team. Although he suffered injuries to his left arm during the attack, Liberko stayed in Afghanistan to honor Byus’ dedication.
Davis died in June 2015 on her second deployment. She and Rob DeLong, her “battle buddy” and fellow DLA Disposition Services employee, were driving to the chow hall on Bagram Airfield when a 105-mm rocket slammed into their Ford pickup. DeLong recovered within seconds despite a concussion, but Davis’ lower-extremity injuries were too severe for basic first aid. When the ambulance arrived, DeLong crawled in behind Davis. He held her hand on the bumpy ride to the hospital, listening as she talked about her husband, daughter and grandbabies. She died as surgeons fought to save her.
Constantly ringing ears still remind Delong daily of Davis’ sacrifice. He recently opened up about his struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the four years of psychiatric therapy that helped him find some peace amid his yearning to understand why he survived the attack and Davis didn’t.
I was a wreck, physically and emotionally, many times, for a long time,” Delong said.
The promise: Never forget
The vicious, unprovoked attacks that ripped apart Americans’ sense of security 20 years ago resulted in the death of almost 3,000 people, 125 of them service members or Defense Department civilians and contractors. Those attacks remain the deadliest terrorist act in America’s history, and aftershocks of the atrocity ripple through lives even today.
Like Lippert, current DLA Director Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic points to employees’ courage, patriotism and resilience.
“Just like the workforce of today, they understood that on America’s worst day, DLA must be at its best,” she said this week in a message to the agency.
The sharp memories of 9/11 urge employees like Woodruff to continually rededicate themselves to DLA’s mission. American pride – the kind stirred by the soulful lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” – is alive and strong among DLA’s members.
“9/11 taught us that we need to be resilient and not become complacent,” Woodruff said. “It’s like a game of chess. We need to be steps ahead of our adversaries.”
He will teach his son that seemingly small roles have lasting effects.
“You don’t have to be the point of the spear to make a difference; someone has to help aim that spear,” he said. “Working at DLA, I feel like I’m doing my part in protecting this great nation.”