JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON— The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 conjures a lot of memories from a lot of different people.
Alaska Army National Guard Master Sgt. Melissa Branch was near the Pentagon that fateful day. Her reflections were shared through a recent press release that indicated that she was serving as a chaplain’s assistant for the 14th Chaplain of the Marine Corps at the time. She said that she started her day like any other.
“I arrived early to work that day. It was Chaplain Diana Meehan’s first day working for us. We were doing our morning meeting, and they wanted me to show her around the Pentagon,” Branch stated in the press release.
The Navy Annex building where Branch worked was demolished in 2013 to make space for the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery, according to the press release. The Navy Annex building overlooked the Pentagon and this is where Branch was informed that the World Trade Center was hit by a commercial airline.
“We walked halfway down the hall to health services, and that’s when the plane went over our heads,” Branch stated in the press release.
American Airlines Flight 77 flew over the Navy Annex, and crashed into the side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 on board, and an additional 125 people in the building at 9:37 a.m. that morning, according to the press release.
“The Navy Annex [wasn’t] a small building, and it shook it like an earthquake. We walk out into the hallway, and I saw security running towards their office, I took three more steps, and the emergency alarm goes off above my head,” Branch said. “We take off running to get out of the building,” she continued. “We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew we needed to get out of the building. We got out of the annex, went down a flight of stairs, across the street, and now we’re standing in the media between the building we just left and Arlington National Cemetery. We look in front of us at the Pentagon, and all we see is a grey cloud of smoke.”
Branch stated they immediately got to work, and the day was so busy, that she didn’t have time to slow down and take in everything that had happened. She said that it wasn’t until that night until the effects started to wear on her.
“We started first by locating our fellow workers, and then we walked around the parking lot [where everyone else had gathered] for hours making sure that people were okay. At noon, we went into 24-hour pastoral support, and within minutes, we had 40 chaplains and ten religious affairs personnel on standby,” Branch said. “By the time I got home, I couldn’t sleep,” she reflected. “Every little noise woke me up. I heard car alarms, I heard doors opening, I heard taxis driving by, I heard everything. The silence just got loud around me the whole time I was home.”
Branch’s schedule didn’t slow down for a while with 12 hour work days being the norm. She worked at a temporary crisis center set up at a nearby hotel before returning to the Navy Annex to run the phone lines. She said they observed a National Day of Prayer three days later.
Branch left Washington to take other assignments with the Marine Corps after the events of 9/11. She left Marines in 2007 and joined the Arizona National Guard in 2008 for a brief time before transferring to the Alaska Army National Guard later that year. She continues to work as a spiritual advisor for fellow soldiers, indicating that her 9/11 experience gave her a deeper insight into her views on life in general.
“My time in D.C. opened my eyes to the fact that life is too short to take it for granted,” Branch said. “I plan my life as if I’m going to live to 150, but I live as though I’m going to die tomorrow.”
The Alaska National Guard hosted a September 11 remembrance ceremony a day before the 20th anniversary with speaker presentations including an invocation by the state command chaplain, Ted McGovern.
“I think today was important because a lot of us needed an opportunity to remember those who have died,” McGovern stated in an additional press release. “I know it was important for me, and for all of us, to remember the events of 9/11, and remember those who died: the victims, the first responders, but also since then in the Global War on Terror – all of our brothers and sisters in arms who have deployed and paid the ultimate price for freedom.”
For more information, visit ak.ng.mil/Media/News/Article/2771587/alaska-national-guard-hosts-911-remembrance-ceremony.
To view multiple video reflections from Alaska National Guardsmen, visit youtube.com/watch?v=gXCBB7NceJc.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org