STARKVILLE, Miss.--On Sept. 11, 2001, four United States commercial planes were hijacked by terrorists and thousands died.
The president, vice president, secretary of state and other national officials mobilized. One military official who watched as the national response unfolded in Washington, D.C., spoke to a Mississippi State University crowd Thursday evening to explain what happened on 9/11 and confirm that freedom in the United States is worth the price paid.
Retired Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling presented "24 Hours Inside the President's Bunker: 9-11-01," also the name of his recently published memoir, as part of the university's observance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
He gave a minute-by-minute account of his experiences, beginning with the shock and disbelief he, like so many other Americans, experienced when he saw the second airplane careen into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
"It was at that very moment, there was no doubt in our minds, inside the Eisenhower Building (in the White House), that we had a full-blown terrorist attack unfolding right before our eyes in the city of New York," Darling said.
Amid evacuations, flight cancellations and reports of explosions, people in the White House were doing all they could to protect Americans and destroy the enemy, he explained.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in the White House that morning, while President George W. Bush was visiting a Florida classroom, did everything possible to ensure no more attacks occurred. When an unidentified plane was reported to be heading toward Washington, Cheney ordered two F15s to stand by and shoot it down.
"I was still holding on to the (phone) receiver when I had to turn and look at him and said, 'This guy is no politician; this guy right here is a warrior,'" Darling said. "He didn't just say, 'Get me an aircraft,' he said, 'Get me an F15.'"
Only two people can order lethal action in the United States, Darling emphasized: the president and the secretary of defense. However, Cheney ordered the F15s to engage Flight 93 at first opportunity and minutes later, the radio reported the aircraft was indeed down.
"The F15s never fired," Darling stressed. "A free fall in history where we thought the United States Air Force, on orders of the vice president, just took lethal action against a civilian airline, but, you know what? It was the Todd Beamers of the world -- it was the passengers.
"And I always ask everybody: Try to put yourself on that airplane with 44 other people, and you've got a terrorist running up and down the aisles. Some people want to do nothing to agitate them. Others want to do something….You have to overcome that fear, be the politician and convince the other passengers on board the right thing to do and then, ultimately, storm the cockpit."
Darling remembered Bush's speech he gave the night of 9/11, and emphasized how Bush's concern was always the people first: Were they receiving help? What resources could be mobilized? How long would they take to arrive?
Even with his concern for ordinary citizens, though, Bush did all he could to prepare the military for a battle against radical terrorism that has lasted these more than 11 years since 9/11.
"We absolutely must finish this job. Freedom in America will always be worth the price," Darling emphasized.
He thanked the MSU students who attended, especially the ROTC members who attended in full uniform.
"Veterans Day -- a day that we celebrate, thank and honor every man and woman who have served in our armed forces, and the sacrifices continue today … We're a country of 303 million people, and yet 2.3 million people serve in the armed forces. Less than 1 percent protect the 99 percent of us," Darling said.
"So, hat's off: Never miss the opportunity to thank a vet when you see one."
Darling donated part of his speaker fee to MSU's G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery Center for America's Veterans, and his appearance was organized by the MSU Student Affairs Activity Center and the university.
The center will feature more than a week of Veterans Day activities, culminating with an annual patriotic halftime show Nov. 17 when the Bulldogs host Arkansas.
For more information on Veterans Day activities at MSU or veterans services information, contact Ronnie White, assistant director of the center, at 662-325-6825.