Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Writer’s Note: The Hawai‘i Herald Editor, Kristen Nemoto Jay, asked me to write an article about 9/11 because she knew that I had been in Washington, D.C., on that day 21 years ago. I hesitated – not because I feared my memory was faulty – in fact, I remember that day like it was yesterday – but because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to relive those events and emotions. I decided to say “yes” because 9/11 continues to be a defining moment for our country, reminiscent of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. And in the wake of recent turbulent domestic and global events, revisiting 9/11 reminds me that it was so much more than a single point in history.
On the morning of 9/11, I was working in Washington and managing the U.S. Coast Guard’s Employee and Labor Relations Branch. The Coast Guard Admiral paused our morning meeting when her aide interrupted and whispered something in her ear. When the aide left, the admiral relayed to us that a plane had just crashed into one of New York City’s iconic Twin Towers. We all softly expressed shock and sadness at the tragic but surely, we thought, accidental event.
Several minutes later, the same aide entered the meeting again, this time to inform us that another plane had crashed into the second Twin Tower. We all looked at each other, having come to the same inescapable conclusion. America was under attack.
The admiral ended the meeting, and I raced back to my office to check on my staff. The Coast Guard headquarters building was normally noisy and bustling with civilian and military personnel but, as I made my way, it was hard not to notice that the corridors and offices were unnaturally quiet and empty.
As I hurried past an open office, I glimpsed a small gathering of Coast Guard personnel with their eyes fixated on a large TV monitor. I joined them, and we all watched motionless in disbelief as the south Twin Tower collapsed in a huge and undulating mountain of gray dust and debris.
When I reached my office, most of my staff had already departed the building. A fellow manager and I decided to wait in the building until the thousands of workers had cleared out of Washington. That colleague and I both lived in the suburbs of Maryland, and neither of us felt safe venturing out into the crowds and onto the streets just yet. The news on CNN was sketchy at best but reported that a third plane had careened full force into the west side of the Pentagon. While we waited in our offices, we could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon, which was only four miles away across the Potomac. My colleague and I finally left the Coast Guard building a little after noon.
I learned later that many friends of mine had decided to walk home to the Virginia suburbs along with scores of others – a journey of several miles – because the streets were in gridlock, the trains felt unsafe, and in the early hours of the attack, nothing made sense. What was behind this attack? Was it going to happen again? Where and when? Their walk home was tense and exhausting because they kept looking skyward for signs of another attack.
Eventually I boarded a metro train towards home and found it empty. I stopped by a friend’s house to make “I’m OK” phone calls, collect my thoughts and emotions and watch the devastating footage that began airing on all the networks. The audio and video footage of the scenes of carnage – which by late afternoon included the crash of United Flight 93 at Shanksville, Pennsylvania – were horrifying. Unfamiliar names like Osama bin Laden and those of the planes’ hijackers began to emerge. Commercial planes were grounded. Congressional representatives gathered in an impromptu moment on the U.S. Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America” in an emotional and demonstrable sign of unity. Strident rhetoric against Muslims and Arab Americans began to creep into the airways.
As I recall, most federal offices were closed and employees were encouraged to stay home the next day, but I went into work. I drove into Washington because I didn’t feel comfortable taking the metro train – as was my usual practice – for it felt like an easy target in case the terrorists were not done.
Traffic was extremely light and the normally buoyant and highly energetic city had taken on a dramatically dark and foreboding character. City streets near Capitol Hill and the White House that had been free-flowing 24 hours before were now barricaded with heavily armed vehicles and police officers. Businesses were shuttered. Security procedures to enter federal buildings, including mine, were noticeably heightened. The city of Washington was in lockdown but would remain so only for a very short time – the clear message from political leadership was that this catastrophic attack would not succeed in bringing the business of running our country to a halt.
The days, weeks and months that followed were filled with tension and uncertainty as America’s war on terrorism accelerated both abroad and domestically. This tension was exacerbated by the monthslong and frightening anthrax bioterrorism threat that engulfed Washington (and other cities) and ultimately killed five people. I recall that all mail coming into federal offices had to be screened for anthrax causing significant delays in postal deliveries and the occasionally mangled package.
A unified Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in October 2001, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which merged 22 federal departments (including the U.S. Coast Guard), was created with incredible speed in November 2002. There was a constant and pitched battle among leaders – sometimes overt, sometimes more nuanced – between the imperative of protecting the country from terrorism and ensuring that the civil liberties of American citizens were not unduly abridged.
The Department of Homeland Security became the third largest federal department and its creation represented the most substantial reorganization of federal agencies since the early days of the Cold War. When the call went out to the federal workforce for volunteers interested in helping with the stand-up of DHS, I did not hesitate to step forward. I became part of a cross-agency team of experts assigned to the complex and urgent task of setting up the new human resources system that would cover over 200,000 DHS employees nationwide.
My work on the team would eventually lead to my appointment as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, where I had the great honor of working with and learning from the best and the brightest that the U.S. Department of Defense had to offer. I have never felt prouder of and more humbled by the extraordinary caliber and devotion to duty that my colleagues at the DHS and U.S. Army demonstrated every single day of their service. Ironically, my office at the Pentagon was located in the spot where American Flight 77 had crashed into the building on 9/11, and from which came the billowing smoke I had watched in horror on that day. Many colleagues and members of my own staff had been there in the Pentagon on 9/11 and carried lasting emotional scars.
Sept. 11 not only dramatically changed the path of my career in Washington but also how I saw the world and its possibilities – the threats as well as the opportunities. I saw firsthand that when the will is there, monumental bureaucratic and political change can occur quickly. The Department of Homeland Security, a complex behemoth of an institution with multiple urgent missions, was created about a year after 9/11. By government standards, that is a nanosecond. Partisan and other differences quickly melted in the wake of the terrorist attacks, not only symbolically but in terms of tangible and long-lasting policy results. Patriotism was not viewed as the domain of one party or the other but rather as a broader need to unite against an outside threat to our country. Unified hearts and minds especially among those with diverse inclinations coalesced to unleash tremendous power (unfortunately, with a short shelf life) and for right or for wrong, it set the country’s future path.
I witnessed how, especially in times of crisis, balancing multiple and competing values can be a constant struggle, particularly when safety and civil liberties are at stake. Inevitably, one’s core values take shape and the vulnerability of retaining civil liberties becomes accentuated. It became clear to me that patriotism with all its currency can take many forms and that my choice of pursuing public service despite its high demands was the right one.
Sept. 11 was one of our country’s darkest but also one of its most transformative hours. It continues to be definitive for me even now, more than 20 years later.
Lynn Heirakuji is the president and a board member of the Nisei Veterans Legacy, a Honolulu non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the legacy of the Nisei Soldiers of World War II. She actively supports veteran and Nisei veteran issues and has spoken at various venues about the Hawai‘i Nisei soldier story.
Within her 30-year career with the Federal Government in Washington, D.C., she served as deputy assistant secretary for personnel oversight for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon. She acted for, advised, and assisted the assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in the development, implementation and review of military and civilian personnel and compensation policy, diversity matters, health affairs, soldier and family wellbeing, language and culture programs, and casualty and memorial affairs.
Heirakuji is the vice-president of the Maunalani Nursing and Rehabilitation Center Board of Directors and is an honorary board member of the Pan-Pacific American Leaders and Mentors. She is a member of the U.S. Japan Council and of the Sons & Daughters of the 442nd RCT.