September 2017

Service, Duty, and Servant Leadership

By Ryan Yantis

Sixteen years ago I reported back to the Pentagon following a long and hot 9/11 experience the day before.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 had begun as normal as any day an Army Spokesman in the building could have expected, but quickly spiraled into a smoky, chaotic and trying one. Hundreds of us risked our lives and limbs to help get people to safety and medical attention after the plane hit the Pentagon, killing many innocent men, women and children.

The efforts by those men and women at the Pentagon who refused to evacuate, opting to stay and help, later to begin restoring operations to our respective offices was amazing. I am proud to have been a part of that.

After the long, hot day in the Pentagon on 9/11, I made it home, showered, kissed my kids and went to bed just before midnight. Far too early the next morning I headed back, as I was one of the Army Public Affairs' Emergency Essential staff members with a 0600 (6am) report time. Up at 0400 (4am), I drove from my Dale City home to report for duty.

In the pre-dawn light of September 12th, on I-395, I crested a rise just south of my destination. To the north, in the pre-dawn darkness through my windshield, I saw the Pentagon. My eyes were first drawn to the side where American Airlines Flight 77 had hit less than 24 hours before, killing a then unknown number of people.

The Pentagon was still burning. I saw a glow coming from the impact area and water being sprayed on it. A gentle west wind pushed smoke across the top of the building and towards DC. The southern section of the Pentagon facing me was black and without power. On the southeastern corner was the Corridor 2 entrance, one of the normal entrances to the building. It was brightly lit — brighter than normal — with large temporary flood lights that were deployed.

Coming off the freeway, I found the Pentagon’s South Parking lot to be closed, with stern and grim-faced security officers directing us to park father away from the building. I parked as close as I could and walked towards the Corridor 2 entrance. For the first time in my assignment there, I was wearing the Army’s camouflage field uniform, as our normal Class B “business” uniforms were not going to be appropriate for our new working conditions. It was still dark as I made my way through the pedestrian viaduct under the freeway, into the Pentagon's huge and empty South Parking lot.

I walked north across the wide and empty expanse of a parking lot, normally packed full of cars. Out of the darkness to my left and right, others appeared as we neared the steps up to the Corridor 2 entrance. Men and women were walking briskly in silence, with a purpose. There was no chatter or laughter, just an occasional hushed greeting. There were well over one hundred men and women of all races, uniforms of all services, and civilians in jeans and blazers.

Up the stairs we went, to the finding the elevated Corridor 2 entrance to now be an enhanced security station, with security dogs to sniff people and bags, a magnetometer portal to check for weapons, and quite a number of well-armed, tense and focused security personnel watching closely. We passively lined up, submitting to security checks to enter a building still on fire and largely without power to do our jobs. Looking back over South Parking, even more were coming behind us, also coming to serve. It was nearing 0600. Time to work.

Kudos to First Responders and law enforcement officers. They run towards danger. They wear protective gear, body armor, and carry the tools of their trades. They save lives and make a difference.

But how many calmly walk through smoke to go to work, largely shuffling paper and helping leaders make good decisions? That morning was an excellent example of service, duty, and servant leadership. I was on duty for the following 38 days, and I know I was not alone.

I was very proud of all those people then, and still am today.

Ryan Yantis, Lt. Col., U.S. Army, retired, Pentagon 9/11 survivor, and proud member of the Academy Leadership team.