As darkness fell over the nation’s capital, about 200 volunteers busily posted nearly 3,000 full-sized American flags near the site of the Pentagon Memorial to be officially dedicated on the seventh anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
One by one, the volunteers positioned the flags, each honoring a victim who died at terrorists’ hands at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center in New York and in a field at Shanksville, Pa. Fluttering from 184 of the flags were ribbons with the names of those killed when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the West side of the Pentagon. Fifty-nine of the victims were aboard the aircraft, the other 125 were Pentagon employees.
“[Osama] bin Laden thought he could change the face of America that day,” said Lori Oakason, programs director for the Healing Field Foundation that sponsored the display. “And he did: more flags are flying today than ever before.”
Oakason called the effort - one being duplicated at several other sites around the United States for Sept. 11 observances - an important way for America to heal from the wounds of 9-11.
“There’s a hopeful, helpful way to heal, and keeping pride in America and keeping America’s flags flying is the most healing thing we can do as Americans,” she said.
The flag display, sponsored by the nonprofit Healing Field Foundation, will provide a patriotic backdrop to tomorrow’s Pentagon Memorial dedication. The ceremony began at 8 a.m., with the reading of the names of the 184 men, women and children killed at the site, followed by the ringing of a bell after each name. A moment of silence was held at 9:37 a.m., when the jet rammed into the Pentagon.
Proceeds from the sale of the display flags benefited the Healing Field Foundation Web site, with all proceeds to go to charitable causes. “The proceeds go to good, worthy causes,” Oakason said. “They help right so many wrongs.”
Paul Swenson, chairman and founder of the Healing Field Foundation, said his organization wants to keep the memory of what happened on 9-11 alive.
“These were just people going to work that day, not expecting anything out of the ordinary, and then the world changed,” Swenson said. “We don’t want people to ever forget that moment.”
The Healing Field isn’t a political statement, he said, but a way to remember those who were killed, as well as troops serving in harm’s way in the war on terror that followed the 9-11 attacks.
David Arthur, a Washington Headquarters Services staffer who helped coordinate the event, said the flags provided a dramatic addition to the Pentagon Memorial dedication. While all eyes will be on the Pentagon, site of the first permanent 9-11 memorial, Arthur said the 2,298 flags in the Healing Field pay tribute to those killed at all three 9-11 crash sites.
“This pays homage to everybody who was killed that day,” he said. “It’s important that we appreciate and remember everyone who died in the attack.”
After positioning an armful of flags onto one of dozens of display racks, Marine Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook reflected on the image being created before his eyes. “It looks amazing to see it starting to take shape,” he said. “You can lose yourself very easily here.”
Like Firstbook, many of the volunteers who assembled the Healing Field work in the Pentagon or serve in the military. Others, like USO volunteer Erin Murphy, came to honor a specific victim of the Pentagon attack - in her case, a fellow Northrop-Grumman employee, Julian Cooper.
Murphy called the Healing Field a way to pay tribute to victims of the 9-11 attacks while reminding Americans all that was lost that day. “It’s important that we do this so we remember what it all means,” she said. “This brings it all back to that day and that moment and puts it all in perspective.”
Still others, like Ludmila Baraban, a college senior in Washington for an internship, had no direct ties to the Pentagon or the 9-11 attacks.
“This is a very symbolic moment, and I came because I wanted to be part of something really, really big,” Baraban said. “Being here makes me very proud of my country, how we reacted to 9-11 and came together as a country and how our leaders have kept us strong.”
Army Lt. Col. Tom Hanson, professor of military science at nearby George Mason University, brought 18 of his ROTC cadets so they, too, could honor the men, women and children who died on 9-11.
“The people who died that day didn’t ask to be put in harm’s way,” Hanson said. “They were casualties in a war we didn’t start, and as civilians, they weren’t legitimate targets.”
Army Maj. Karen Hubbard, Hanson’s wife who works in the Army comptroller’s office at the Pentagon, helped him straighten a row of flags that stood like sentries beneath the floodlights of the Pentagon parking lot. She paused, reflecting on the symbolism of the Healing Field flags fluttering in the breeze, the Pentagon Memorial and Sept. 11 commemorations.
“As more years pass, there will be fewer of us who remember and are able to pass it on,” she said. “It’s important that we remember so we can learn from this and never let the same thing happen again.”