Fort Hood official who survived 9/11 attack at Pentagon reflects on response, says Afghanistan effort not in vain

Published: Sep. 6, 2021 at 5:07 PM CDT
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FORT HOOD, Texas (KWTX) - Lieutenant Colonel Tom Rheinlander showed up for work on time as usual at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

He worked in public affairs and the office wall was covered in television monitors that blared news from around the world.

That fateful day, all of the monitors were showing images of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

Thick black smoke billowed from a gaping hole in the side of the building where moments earlier a plane had struck.

“We all thought that maybe it was a sight seeing trip gone wrong until we saw the second plane hit the south tower. We knew something was up,” Rheinlander said.

The mood in the Pentagon got serious in a hurry as leaders scrambled to find intelligence that would lead them to who was responsible for such a devastating sucker punch.

An hour later, Pentagon leaders became a target themselves.

“The building started rumbling like a small earthquake. The sirens started going off and a voice came over the intercom saying to evacuate the building. This is not a drill, " Rheinlander remembered.

His office was about a quarter of the way around the sprawling building from the point of impact. They had practiced drills for events like this before so he wasn’t surprised that the evacuation from his part of the building was going smoothly with military precision.

“The military likes to be prepared. Everyone was making their way out of the building to their predetermined rally points. Smoke was starting to fill the halls. Closer to the point of impact it was chaos,” Rheinlander said.

As soon as he got out of the building, he made a quick call to his family to let them know he was alright. He thought he left a message on the voice mail but with major cell towers down and a badly overwhelmed system the message was not delivered.

It would be nearly 18 hours before he finally made it home, much to the relief of his wife and two girls.

“They were relieved. My wife was relieved. But she was mad too. They had no idea where I was or how I was. I thought I left a message but it didn’t go through,” Rheinlander recalls.

After a brief evacuation, top military leaders made the decision to set up an alternative command center, but also maintain a presence in the Pentagon. Part of that decision was no doubt to send a message to the terrorists that we may have been shaken, but remained undeterred.

“People ask me what I remember most about that day. It was the determination of the military and defense department and civilians to maintain operations that were normal. We took this sucker punch and knew someone had to pay. And the planning started that very day,” Rheinlander said.

In the days, weeks and months after the terrorist attack, Rheinlander says he witnessed scores of young men and women volunteering to join the service.

“They knew they could go into harms way. But they also knew our nation had been attacked. I have the upmost respect for these men and women and their willingness to take the fight to the enemy. " Rheinlander said.

Now that the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, Rheinlander knows that some soldiers feel that their sacrifices were in vain.

He disagrees though.

“There are thousand of young Afghani men and women who had the opportunity to get an education. And they took the opportunity to become doctors, lawyers, business men and women. You’re efforts were not in vain. You made this possible,” Rheinlander said.

“If you’re struggling with this, there is help available at the VA, the VFW’s your battle buddies. Talk to someone. You have to take that first step to get help,” Rheinlander said.

Rheinlander retired from the army in 2004. He is currently the Public Affairs Director at Fort Hood in Central Texas.

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