When the FBI Evidence Response Team of which I was a team member arrived the morning of September 12, 2001, the Pentagon was still smoldering.
Local fire departments were still applying water at rates I had never personally seen before.
While many pictures exist, it is hard for me to describe what it felt like being there in person.
Law enforcement command posts and response vehicles were spread out while each team was trying to figure out what to do first and who was in charge.
The first day was chaotic, to say the least. Sometime early that morning a loud air siren went off alerting us to possible incoming and unknown aircraft. Everyone was still unsure of the breadth and nature of the attack on our country so we each went scrambling for cover.
At one point, my colleague and friend John Zero and I were inside the Pentagon putting human remains inside a body bag for removal by the soldiers.
Later that day I was one of many lined up shoulder to shoulder walking across the lawn seeking evidence. Everything was potential evidence.
On other days that first week I was inside the Pentagon, sometimes knee high, shoveling through ashes seeking … anything that might shed light on who was responsible and how the terrorist act was carried out.
I personally found plane tickets that were water logged but somehow had survived the fire and destruction.
During the second week I was part of a team that accompanied the remains of soldiers and civilians as we flew via a Chinook helicopter from the Pentagon to Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, where medical examiners performed autopsies.
During those flights I often pulled out a small copy of the New Testament and Psalms where I would read scripture seeking comfort and understanding.
Before long the Pentagon lawn began to look like a tent city where each team spent their down time trying to get some rest and make sense of the mission.
Today, hanging on my foyer wall is a frame of pictures and a Salvation Army t-shirt which had been distributed by the volunteers who willingly and freely gave of their time to feed and encourage us.
I appreciated the work of our chaplin, Rev. Jim Bangle.
When our rotation at the Pentagon was complete, I drove back to Richmond, Virginia, where I lived at the time, and went immediately to see my minister and friend. I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember crying for what seemed like hours as I poured out the pent up emotions.
And then three months later we traveled to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, New York, where we again donned Tyvek protective suits and raked through debris looking for more evidence.
It was all exhausting. Physically and mentally.
I realize that I’ve not really spoken much about my time as part of one of the many FBI Evidence Response Teams at the Pentagon and World Trade Center sites.
My experiences were not really unique and none of them add to the body of knowledge of what happened on or after 9/11.
Most of the time I simply tried to do my job and not think about the consequences of our country having been attacked and the loss of nearly 3,000 lives.
Today, as I reflect on the events of 20 years ago, I am reminded of many things which were not always apparent at the time.
I remember seeing people set aside their biases and prejudices in order to see people for who they are - human beings all made in the image of God.
I remember places of worship increasing in attendance as people grappled with their humanness and sought to draw closer to God.
I remember people volunteering to serve others following the example of God who set the ultimate example in how to serve others.
I remember the bravery of so many.
It seems like today many people have forgotten those days even as we are inundated with countless recollections of horrific stories and heroic deeds.
Yet the trauma continues all around us.
Unlike many law enforcement responders who are sick or have died because of their exposure to toxic substances, I am generally in good physical and mental health.
I have since retired from the FBI and now spend my time seeking to educate others about how the traumas people experienced as children affect us throughout our lives.
I also share how people can be high hope individuals who are able to rebound, reconnect, and renew their relationships with others.
Mostly, I spend my time seeking peace: peace with God, peace with others, and peace with myself.
Today, I pray that you, too, will find the peace that allows you to live the purposeful and meaningful life you are seeking.
If you haven’t yet found that life, I encourage you to remember the days when all seemed lost and how the kindness of strangers sought to feed you and encourage you; sought to serve and see others as human beings, not a demographic; and gave of themselves selflessly and in doing so changed the world.
I encourage you to never forget.