ARLINGTON, VA -- Cassandra Johnson has passed by the Pentagon Memorial every workday since it opened on Sept. 11, 2008. Last night, when news broke that covert U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Johnson decided that today would be the day she finally stopped by on her way into work and paid her respects to a good friend.
The friend was Ernie Willcher, a longtime Pentagon employee-turned-consultant who was killed while briefing Army personnel on military survivor benefits. Johnson had recently replaced Willcher in his post at the Pentagon and was supposed to be at the same briefing. At the last minute they decided to make it a smaller meeting, so Johnson wound up being "about a football field's length" from most of the carnage.
"There's a lot in the building that reminds you of what happened, and I think of him every day," said Johnson, who works in the Office of the Army General Counsel. "Not a day goes by where Ernie's not in my thoughts. I'm surrounded by his papers."
This morning she paid tribute by dropping a penny into the small pool beneath Willcher's personal bench inside the memorial, which has 184 such benches, one for every victim who was killed either in the Pentagon or on American Airlines flight 77 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Even though I work at the Pentagon, I couldn't bring myself to come to the memorial," said Johnson. "I just didn't want to come here … But today's Ernie's day."
There were plenty of people at the memorial this morning who had had the same idea as Johnson. While news of bin Laden's death may have led to a raucous celebration last night outside the White House, the scene outside the Pentagon this morning was one of quiet satisfaction and somber reflection. A number of Pentagon employees said they'd never felt compelled to visit the memorial until today, while the friends and families of victims said they had come out to quietly celebrate what felt like a bit of closure.
Among them was Occoquan resident John Chapa, whose mother, Rosemary Chapa, worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency and was killed inside the Pentagon. John Chapa has stopped by the Pentagon from time to time, but this morning marked his first visit in more than a year to the memorial. Since last night's news it was hard to think of anything but his mother and those who died with her, he said.
"She was a loving person and a kind person, and I lost not just my mom but my best friend," he said. As for what bin Laden's death means for the fight against terrorism, "My general feeling is that he's one apple in the tree, and it's going to be a lifetime struggle."
A group of about fifteen Marines walked together to the memorial's far corner, where they stood in a semi-circle and shared stories about Sept. 11 and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I've been waiting for this day for a long time," one of them said. Another read aloud from a report filed during last night's news by a watch commander, who ruminated on bin Laden's death as a literal and symbolic victory and wondered what it might mean for America's future in Afghanistan.
Andrea Doctor, a nurse from Waldorf, Md., stopped by to visit the bench memorializing her husband, Johnnie Doctor, Jr., an information systems technician who was in the Navy for 14 years and was killed in the Pentagon. Andrea Doctor sat on the bench for a while and placed a white flower there before heading off to work. She said bin Laden's death brings some degree of closure but the pain can still be so intense that "it's like you can't breathe."
"I just thought it was a significant day," she said. "But I have mixed feelings about it. It was a slap in the face for him to be out there for ten years and for his family to not feel the pain and the hurt that we felt."
Bob, a Defense Department civilian employee who asked that his last name not be used, said he'd "never set foot" inside the memorial until this morning, when his mind was filled with memories of fleeing the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
"You have certain memories that are burned into your head," he said. "I vividly remember women running down the ramps, and if they lost their heels they didn’t stop to pick them up." He lost two buddies at the Pentagon and a cousin at the Twin Towers. "I could've easily been on the wrong side of the building," he said.
Pentagon workers continued coming and going throughout the morning, huddling in packs near benches to talk about co-workers they'd lost. Some of them turned in circles and checked out the sight lines, trying to remember which direction the plane had come from. Most of them said they weren’t thinking about the death of bin Laden so much as the death of the innocents they knew. Even so, they found some consolation in the news out of Pakistan.
"I'm glad they got him," Johnson said of bin Laden, before heading into work. "I'm just sorry he had ten years."