Commentary: A day of remembrance, a day of unity — for nation and family

By Dianne Ryder

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On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For an entire generation, that defining moment resonated for years with the question, “Where were you when you heard the news?” Because most people knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy, just 46 years old, was shot.

Since I was just shy of 8 weeks old on Nov. 22, 1963, my “Where were you when” moment came much later — just prior to my 38th birthday.

Though I will always remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, my personal account is not particularly dramatic or riveting. But what happened that day did deeply and permanently affect my mindset, how I view the world and how I view my role in government service.

I was working as a command support assistant in the command office of what was then the Defense Energy Support Center. I was preparing to depart on my very first out-of-state TDY trip. And since I’ve always enjoyed traveling, I was excited to head down to Florida to staff an exhibit with DESC colleagues.

My uncle worked as a cab driver and lived near Fort Belvoir, so he offered to take me to Dulles International Airport to catch my flight. He was also a part-time musician, so on our way, we listened to CDs of his band.

It was such a beautiful day, and as we conversed and listened to music, it never occurred to either of us that anything could possibly be wrong. Have you ever experienced a day when the weather is so incredibly perfect — sunny and breezy — that you feel nothing could go awry? That’s how I felt that day.

It wasn’t until we were approached by an airport official as we pulled up to the curb at Dulles that we knew anything had happened. Even then, we were merely told all flights had been canceled the rest of the day. As we headed back to Alexandria, my uncle’s cell phone began to ring — and when he answered, we knew at last what the rest of the world already knew. Up until then, it never occurred to us why the cell phone hadn’t rung. Immediately, I called my husband, who had retrieved our boys from school, and I eventually confirmed everyone closest to me was safe.

When I got home, I watched incredulously as the horror unfolded on television. Unable to look away, I saw news coverage of the twin towers crumbling to the ground like matchsticks. I heard the simultaneous reports of the attack on the Pentagon and the hijacking of the plane that later crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I knew I wasn’t the only one who went from thinking the initial plane hitting the World Trade Center tower was accidental to realizing this was a calculated, unprovoked act of devastating violence. Seeing the events play out on TV was mind-blowing, surreal and gut-wrenching.  

In an instant, it seemed everything about our world had changed. I went back to work the next day and waited more than an hour to enter the gates at the McNamara Headquarters Complex because of heightened security. We were all forced to embrace “the new normal” of constant vigilance.   

Although I was fortunate enough not to have lost anyone dear to me, I heard about a high school classmate, David Laychak, who died at the Pentagon that day. His brother Jim would later become president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, integral to raising funds and envisioning the memorial’s design.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, stories of heroism, selflessness and deep poignancy emerged. The predominant byproduct that manifested itself during that time was nationwide, if not worldwide unity. Never before had I witnessed such a profound and tangible display of patriotism. As a country, we shared grief, disbelief and even despondency.

But out of the tragedy grew resiliency, resolve and a determination to rebuild — not just structures or buildings, but pride. American flags were flown nearly everywhere, and news stories about people helping each other, praying for each other and sacrificing for each other began to take precedence over the media’s preoccupation with those who brought their acts of terrorism to our doorstep.

I noticed a difference in my own home as well. My three sons talked more openly to me. We said, “I love you” more often and hugged even more than we normally did. We all adopted an “attitude of gratitude” for the blessings in our lives.

And my 17 years of government service took on a whole new meaning. I could no longer deny that working for the Department of Defense was my life’s career, and I was more proud than ever to know that in my own small way, I was supporting the brave men and women who defend our freedoms daily.

Shortly after the attacks, Congress designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day. On every anniversary since then, the sitting president has issued a proclamation calling for a National Day of Service and Remembrance. On this 15-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, I hope we can once again find ourselves united in remembrance — in service and as patriots.