Special 9/11 Anniversary Issue: Looking back, moving forward

Major articles in this special 9/11 anniversary issue

'All those quilts, the posters the schoolchildren sent, the letters saying thank you for taking care of the country'they help,' DOD's Anita Washington says.

Olivier Douliery

Recently, a balmy midsummer day led DOD's Joseph Friedl to suddenly think, 'This is a good day for a bombing run. It's exactly like Sept. 11.'

Workers throughout capital cope with changes wrought by 9-11

Last month, in the middle of an August heat wave in Washington, like a pebble in a pool, dropped a cool clear morning.

Defense Department budget and finance director Joseph Friedl was taking his usual commute to work at the Pentagon that day, enjoying the jewellike morning, the bright sun, the blue sky.

'Then,' he said, 'I thought, 'This is a good day for a bombing run. It's exactly like Sept. 11.' Some things have been changed forever.'

Last month, the Marine Corps was first to move back into rebuilt offices in the Pentagon. In the building they returned to, memorial quilts, posters, photographs and letters still covered walls and spilled out into hallways.

For some, these outpourings were a source of strength.

'All those quilts, the posters the schoolchildren sent, the letters saying thank you for taking care of the country'they help,' said Anita Washington, IT coordinator for real estate and facilities at the Pentagon.

For others, they, like the jets that roar over nearby Arlington National Cemetery during funeral services, are 'like the memorial sites to victims of the Pentagon crash,' Friedl said. 'They're constant reminders.'

'I read somewhere that people can't remember pain, that it's a defense mechanism,' he said. 'But I know I'll never forget things about that day. I know I'll never forget what it smelled like: a mixture of jet fuel, smoke and burning flesh.'

Andrew Wolvin, a professor of communication at the University of Maryland in College Park, studies the behavior of people listening to bad news, how they process the information. The stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance were described by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross in her landmark 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

'Each person goes through the stages at a different rate,' Wolvin said. 'Right after 9-11, we were all at the same stage; now people are all over the map, still processing their grief. It's important we provide a listening space, a listening environment so people can tell their stories.'

But 'we also should recognize that people need to move on and not dwell on grief and pain, difficult as that may be,' Wolvin said.

That can be hard to do if you feel you're a target.

'Every time we hear a plane fly overhead, we wonder a little,' said Richard Bleach, CIO of DOD's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, who works in offices near the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

But Edward Tavares, a civilian strategic planner who has been doing IT support at the Pentagon since 1995, shrugs off the idea. 'Some people quit after 9-11,' he said. 'And some people I know are still looking over their shoulders. But I think we're no bigger a target than we were before. I was in the Army before this job, so I always figured it was part of the business.'

Washington said, 'I thought about the fact that the Pentagon was still a target. But the president said it was going to be business as usual, and I didn't want the terrorists to make me afraid.'

For some, the increase in security has helped allay their fears.

'But you don't know if people feel more secure because of it,' Bleach said. 'I think we are all more aware that we can't take things like that for granted.'

Security at the Pentagon is significantly changed, Tavares said. 'Before, you'd only occasionally see a weapon; now you see people with automatic weapons'M16 rifles'all the time. You go through two or three checks before you get to work. And you're being checked in by the National Guard backed up by Pentagon security forces.'

Additionally, 'we have a new computer emergency notification system that lets us know if there's a problem anywhere in the building,' Washington said.

Security is also a hot issue in local government.

'People were on edge for awhile,' said David Leuck, technical services manager for Culver City, Calif. 'Especially being located across the street from the main post office and because our department includes the city's mailroom. We went through anthrax training; knowing what to do helped.'

And right after Sept. 11, he said, the IT Department added physical security measures, including more tightly restricted access.

Reacting differently

The stress level on the job is higher than before the attacks, Washington acknowledged. 'But it's different for different people. Right after 9-11, some people left, some people cried easily or they didn't want to leave their kids.'

Evelia Polastre, a computer specialist in the Pentagon, said, 'I probably did feel more stress right after 9-11. But we're always working under stress, so it's hard to tell. I'm just grateful that I'm here.'

'My job has always been stressful,' said Joseph Bourque, a systems integrator for DOD's Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Division in an office building on Capitol Hill. 'People who do what we do'if you do it right'are always in a high-stress situation.'

But stress related to Sept. 11 is not limited to the attacks, Tavares said. 'There's a lot of reorganization going on, what with the Office of Homeland Security being set up,' he said. 'Any time you have change, you're going to have uncertainty and stress.'

'At EPA, we certainly feel the pressure,' said Pat Garvey, special assistant in the Office of Information Collection at the Environmental Protection Agency. 'We were involved at Ground Zero concerning asbestos; we were involved with the cleanup after the anthrax letters at the Hart Senate Office Building.'

Dan McFarland, CIO of Dallas, said, 'I think we've always had a sense of urgency about what we do: providing access to city services, but that sense has been heightened.'

Some of the stress is economic in origin, McFarland added: 'Coupled with 9-11 has been the collapse of the economy. Property markets are down, tax rates are going down, budgets are down, adding pressure to do more with less.'

For Air Force Col. Larry Wilson, formerly stationed at the Pentagon, now at Gunter Annex-Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., the events of Sept. 11 have only intensified his attitude toward public service.

'It's just proved my attitude was right all along,' said the deputy chief of the Standard Systems Group's in-house software development organization, the Software Factory. 'We have a job to support our customer in the field. We still have that mission; it's just more critical.'

For the country

Washington said the attacks have made her more dedicated to her job. 'Someone has to protect and defend this country of ours. Most of the time you're just going along, you're complacent and then something like 9-11 happens, and you realize that there are enemies around us. It gives you a different perspective. It's made me think about how I think about my family, my job, the way I feel about my co-workers,' she said.

Most days, Washington said, she feels a 10 on her optimism meter. 'But with the anniversary,' she said, 'it's all coming back.'

For now, the dead and the living continue to haunt Friedl. The wife of someone who worked in Friedl's department called about her husband the day of the attacks. 'She knew where his desk was so she thought he would be fine,' he recalled. 'But he had just moved his desk, and he was gone.'

After the attack, Friedl's office became the new computer room. Today, the servers are gone, returned to their newly rebuilt space.

'I've left things otherwise the way they were after Sept. 11,' Friedl said of his office. 'A lamp shade is tilted sideways, pictures are still crooked. I keep them that way as a reminder; some things we shouldn't forget.'

Sami Lais is a free-lance writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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