(WWTI) Michael Gaffney is a highly decorated retired Colonel from the United States military and although his impressive career came with many different experiences, a day that impacted the entire nation comes to the forefront.
“I was in 9/11 and I was in the Pentagon. I was there for a couple of tours,” Gaffney said.
At the Pentagon on 9/11, Gaffney was set to be the briefing officer for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but when he walked into the general’s office, several officers were watching the TV with one tower on fire and then watched as the second plane made contact. Gaffney described the day in his statement explaining that they left for the capital building for their briefing, but as they drove away, they saw the black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon.
They returned to the Pentagon and Gaffney ran over to the area where the plane hit to find the building collapsed from the fifth floor down. He set down his uniform and classified briefing book and attempted to help the wounded and do what they could.
“I took a picture on the ground right next to the Pentagon and that’s that. That’s where we got that,” Gaffney said.
“We tried to get inside and all fire and everything like that. And that day I couldn’t get back into the Pentagon, but the next morning though, I was able to go in, in the basement. There’s a place in the Pentagon. You can go down inside. This is real. You can’t really talk about some of those things today. We would come inside and the place that was still on fire the next day and stayed and worked in there and you go back and forth.”
The emotion of the event seeps through when Gaffney speaks about it even now, and in the statement, he wrote in 2016.
He wrote, “I retired from the Army at the Pentagon almost two years later. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the losses of LTC Dickerson and SSG White and the other deaths and horrible events of September 2011. It was hard for me to write this without shedding a tear or two that I just felt like doing it given its now 15 years ago.”
Gaffney was recognized for his efforts on 9/11 and the days after by the nation’s leaders.
“Because of your efforts, the Chiefs and I were better able to carry out our responsibilities of providing military to the President and the Secret Secretary of Defense. Best wishes for your success in your future endeavors, Colin l Powell, Joint chiefs of staff.”
Although his involvement in the major event came at the end of his career, Gaffney’s experience as a pilot in the Army leading up to that point was just as impressive.
“The Army got me into it. I said I wanna fly, and so I fly.”
After graduating from his ROTC program at Penn State, he did three tours in Korea where he was a platoon leader. He said it was a lot of responsibility being in charge of young soldiers and worrying about their well-being.
“I had to make sure that the kids didn’t get in trouble and go where they’re supposed to go,” Gaffney said.
His experience brought him to Fort Drum, which would establish the North Country as his home. He continued in a leadership role, as a pilot in the area’s skies.
“We had a lot of soldiers at Fort Drum. And we’d work with good soldiers up there and we would fly black hawks up there. And we liked to do that,” Gaffney said.
Gaffney moved on to patrol the skies in Germany for three years, and then afterward his career led him to the Pentagon and a story all of us know too well. Throughout it all, he gathered various honors and awards along the way such as the Allegion of a Merit for Military Intelligence and many more.
Even after retiring, Gaffney used his extensive experience to work for the aircraft industry company, Boeing for 13 years. It was there he was able to name the Emarss airplane, which was built for the military and sent across the world.
Today, Gaffney lives in Chaumont with his family as his legacy and dedication to our nation live on, through his past service contributions throughout his career, and his unwavering love for our country.
“My Remembrances of the Events of 9/11/2001 at the Pentagon”
On the early morning of 9/11, my assignment that day was to be the Briefing Officer, for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) for the Army G-2, Intelligence, Lieutenant General ROBERT W. NOONAN. We were to travel from the Pentagon to the US Senate Selected Committee on Intelligence offices at the US Capital building in Washing DC.
That morning I went down from my third-floor Pentagon Army Staff office to the General’s office ground-floor office that morning at about 9 AM to match up with him and go in his government vehicle to the Capital Building for the briefing. When I arrived in his office I saw several officers watching the TV in the General’s office area. Brigadier General Nick Grant, a friend of mine was also there along with Robert Lancaster a senior civilian Intelligence manager. They were watching one of the Twin Towers on fire from an airplane running into it. I could not understand why this happened because it was a very clear, beautiful day, and it couldn’t have been an accident because of bad weather and the pilot getting lost. Then we saw on TV that another airplane flew into the other tower. We then knew instantly this was intentional. At that time around 9:30 AM, the General said we better get over to Capitol Hill for our briefing. Mr. Lancaster went with us. So we went to the Pentagon River Entrance door and got into the general’s car. As we were pulling away the General asked me to call an unmanned aerial vehicle expert who worked for me in my office on a question he had. I called the man on my cell phone, and we talked for a while, and then the phone disconnected. A few seconds later the general’s driver got a call on his radio that there was an explosion in the building. I looked out the back of the side window of the car and saw heavy black smoke coming over the roof of the Pentagon building.
At that time the general told the driver to continue over to the Capital building. We drove quickly over the Potomac River to the Capital Building and got out for our meeting. But everything was going wild. The Pentagon fire billowed black smoke on the western horizon. The heavy black smoke was being pushed over towards the Capital Building by the winds. There were fighter jets flying very low, and fast over the capital every couple of minutes. We got out of the car at the Capital Building. People were running every which way. People were looking into the sky to see if any airliners were coming our way. There were many afraid because there were some airliners you could see being diverted from the National Airport and we thought one of them was coming at the Capital. I saw Senator Lieberman departing the capital building and looking up at the sky. A man ran up to me and said the Twin Towers were gone. I couldn’t believe it. At that time the general said let’s go back to the Pentagon, but our driver had already departed.
I stopped a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Pentagon. So we spent off down towards the Pentagon, but we then got into a big traffic jam down near the Jefferson monument this was about a half mile from the Pentagon. The General said let’s just walk the rest of the way. By this time it was about 10:15 AM. So we abandoned the taxi. I think I gave the driver a $20 dollar bill. And we started walking back to the Pentagon via the Washington Memorial Bridge and to the Pentagon. When we made it over the Potomac I tried to call my wife Janet to tell her what was going on but all the cell phones were not working. I did get to talk to her a little bit later to tell her I was OK. As we walked up to the East side of the Pentagon the General said he and Mr. Lancaster were going to the Emergency Command Center in the Pentagon basement; so I said good bye to them and went to where the airplane had gone into the building. When I got there it was a huge nightmare. The building was on fire and the Arlington firemen were trying to put it out. The Pentagon side wall collapsed from the 5th story down. There were many people running every which way. I ran into a couple buddies of mine – Army Majors. Lieutenant Colonels, and Colonels. They had taken their uniform shirts off because of the heat to help with what anything they could do, so I did the same. All injured people were already taken to medical care at that time. We just were working in our undershirts. I put my army jacket with all my medals and stuff on it and my dress shirt with it and laid it on the grass ground along with my hat and the classified briefing book. A truck came by us and dropped off a bunch of stretchers, and also kicked out a folded tent that we initially thought were body bags. Someone said to pick up a stretcher so we could try and get the wounded out of the building. We got stretchers and a coworker of mine BG Medora asked me if he could take the other end of my stretcher and I said yes Sir. So we and several others went down along the building and tried to go into the section of the building that was not on fire. We went to the door and opened it but the indoor corridor was full of smoke and we couldn’t go in. So we abandoned our attempt.
While we were standing there one of my coworkers an Army Colonel that I can’t remember his name told me that Major Jerry Dickerson, my friend, and coworker wasn’t able to get out of the building. Jerry and I would run together at lunch time for PT. He and I were going to run together in a couple of weeks on the Army 10 Miler annual race. (The 2001 Army 10 Miler was cancelled.) I don’t know how he knew that but I did know that Jerry’s office had to be destroyed when the wall collapsed. By this time all we did for the rest of the morning and afternoon was unload trucks, put some tents up, and things like that.
At one point in the afternoon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came walking by assessing the damage, and my General Noonan was with him. They had big civilian-clothed guards with armor protection vests carrying machine guns with them. That startled me into thinking all of this is really, really serious! I then went back to find my uniform coat where I put it earlier and my briefing book but it was all gone. I kind of freaked out because the briefing book was classified and I could get in trouble for losing it. While I was franticly looking for it an FBI guy came up to me and wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I lost my classified briefing book and my uniform jacket. He then told me that one of his agents picked it up and it was secured in one of their cars. I went over and took it back from the FBI guy. I remained at the site that day till I could get a ride home. My cell phone battery died and there was no way to charge it. I stayed there the rest of the day till it started to get dark. My car was parked in South parking on the other side of the building, but I didn’t go to it because it was blocked off by emergency equipment. I can’t remember who took me home but when I got there it was about 8:30 PM that night. My wife Janet and children came out to me when I was dropped off at our house and some of my neighbors too because they thought I could have been hurt or killed or something. About a week later when I went to Poplar Tree Elementary School in the evening for an activity for my daughter Ally, one of her teachers told me that she was very distraught on 9/11 during classroom for Ally and wondering if her Dad was hurt or missing.
I went to bed shortly after going home so I could get up early and get back to the Pentagon. I got up around 4 AM and drove back to the Pentagon. All the cars driving on the interstate to the Pentagon were traveling real slow like a funeral profession with no passing and going fast like usual. I got to the Pentagon around 4:45. I parked my other car about a quarter mile away and walked up to and into the Pentagon that was still on fire with flames visible coming out of the roof. I walked right by the guards and no one stopped me, not even asking for an ID. I went in to where my office was but there was debris in the corridors and were blocked by firemen and other emergency personnel. I then went up to a higher floor and there was none there. There was an office open with a light on. I looked in and there was an Air Force sergeant watching CNN outside the pentagon live outside the building. I then used my cell phone to call my brother Bill. He answered immediately. I told him I was OK but was inside the Pentagon while it was still on fir, and I was watching it on CNN. He was glad I was OK but concerned that I was staying in a burning building.
After talking to Bill I went down to the large cafeteria on the other side of the building and there were areas for the Army staff to meet and organize. We still had to keep the Pentagon working because we all knew the country was under attack and we had to do role calls to see who was missing. I found out then that Jerry Dickerson, my friend, and his Sergeant White were gone and missing. My boss found out he lost his secretary, his Major assistant, and a young female Private First Class. In the pursuing days Major Jerry Dickerson and Sergeant White’s bodies were found in the rubble. Jerry and Sargent White were both promoted from Major to Lieutenant Colonel and from Sargent to Staff Sergeant. They both left children and other loved ones. Both were buried at Arlington National Cemetery not far from where they were killed. They both received Purple Heart medals and Meritorious Service Medals. (They also both have memorials at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. The Memorial was completed on September 11, 2008. President George W. Bush called the memorial “an everlasting tribute to the 184 souls who perished.”)
Several times the day after 9/11, and the next day after there were evacuations alarms to get out of the Pentagon cause another plane might be coming. We would run as fast as possible to get to an exit. I stayed the second day there in the Pentagon till around 10:30 PM. The Salvation Army set up a service desk in the center court of the Pentagon giving out soup, coffee soda and hamburgers, and hot dogs. One of the Salvation Army Ladies asked how long I was working that day and I told her I was in early. She then pulled out a pair of new socks for me and one of my coworkers. That was one of the nicest things I experienced in my eight and a half years in the Pentagon. The next day I started to break out in the worst case of fever blisters (AKA herpes) I ever had on my lips. I assume I got it from the tensions and being out in the sun all day on 9/11.
As the days went on before I went home I would watch the excavation work from the Navy Annex a few hundred yards from where the plane went in. In the ensuing months, I did my best in my job at the Pentagon to support and sustain our soldiers fighting the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq and tried to do everything in my authority to help avenge the deaths of our citizens brought on by the 19 militants from the al-Qaeda extremist group that hijacked 4 airliners and caused the attacks. I’m still trying to do that!
I retired from the Army at the Pentagon almost 2 years later. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the losses of LTC Dickerson and SSG White and the other deaths and the horrible events of September 2011. It was hard for me to write this without shedding a tear or two, but I just felt like doing it given it’s now 15 years ago this Sunday.Michael J Gaffney, Colonel (Retired), US Army…… Written on 9/9/2016