Providing Spiritual Support on the Darkest Day: Military Chaplain Reflects on 9/11 Pentagon Experience

By Edward Eagerton

This September 11 marks the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. For one Alaska Army National Guard soldier who was near the Pentagon that day, it is a time to reflect.

Master Sgt. Melissa Branch – now an Alaska Army National Guard religious affairs noncommissioned officer – was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as a chaplain’s assistant for the 14th Chaplain of the Marine Corps in 2001. She recalled her morning on Sept. 11 that year being like any other morning.

“I arrived early to work that day,” she said. “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.”

The Navy Annex building where Branch worked – which was later demolished in 2013 in part to make space for the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery – overlooked the Pentagon building. The new commander, Meehan, had stepped out of the morning meeting there, and when she returned, informed Branch about the World Trade Center being hit by a commercial airline. The two continued with their morning as planned and started to make their way to the Pentagon. But before Branch could escort Meehan to the Pentagon, they had to stop by the security office in the Navy Annex building complete paperwork. At that point, the pair didn’t have reason to believe a threat was imminent near the Pentagon, though on the way, Branch said she saw a friend who was on the SWAT team heading out.

“We walked down the first corridor to the first office, and security said we were at threat condition normal,” Branch said. “I waved to my friend on the SWAT team. I didn’t think anything about it, but they were leaving the compound.”

After leaving the security office, Branch said their next stop was the health services office. She never made it to that stop.

“We walked halfway down the hall to health services, and that’s when the plane went over our heads,” she said.

At 9:37 a.m. that morning, American Airlines Flight 77 flew over the Navy Annex, and crashed into the side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 onboard the plane, and an additional 125 people in the building.

“The Navy Annex [wasn’t] a small building,” Branch said. “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.”

From that point, it was fight or flight.

“We [took] off running to get out of the building,” she said. “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 [then] … [we were] standing in the [median] between the building we just left and Arlington National Cemetery. [When] we [looked] in front of us at the Pentagon, and all we [saw was] a grey cloud of smoke.”

When many people think of first responders, firemen, police and paramedics come to mind. However, in times of crisis, an often overlooked first responder is the spiritual practitioner who responds to console and comfort people after having experienced trauma. Branch explained that even during the confusion on the morning of 9/11, her team of chaplains immediately got to work, as this was the one way they could serve the community during this time of tragedy.

“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,” Branch said. “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 the day was so busy that she didn’t have time to slow down and take in everything that had happened. It wasn’t until that night that the effects of the day started to wear on her.

“By the time I got home, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “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 continued to be busy over the next several days, with shifts typically lasting for 12 hours. She worked at a temporary crisis center set up at a nearby hotel, and eventually was able to return to the Navy Annex to man the phone lines. Three days later, she said, they observed a National Day of Prayer.

After the events of 9/11, Branch left Washington to take other assignments with the Marine Corps. In 2007, she left the Marines, and in 2008, enlisted into the Arizona National Guard for a brief time before transferring to the Alaska Army National Guard later that year.

Branch continues to work as a spiritual advisor for fellow soldiers and feels that her experience that day in Washington gave her a deeper insight into how she views life.

“My time in D.C. opened my eyes to the fact that life is too short to take it for granted,” she 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.”

-This article was originally published on DVIDSHub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.

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