JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. –
Former Virginia Army Reserve Ambassador Isabelle Slifer received the Public Service Commendation Medal Aug. 26, recognizing her six years of service as an ambassador.
However, Slifer had been serving her country long before she became an ambassador in 2015. In early September 2001, when she was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Slifer started a new job at the U.S. Department of the Army Headquarters in the Pentagon.
“On the 11th of September , I actually started my sixth day with the Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel section,” Slifer said in a 2003 report published by the Office of Army Reserve History. “I went to work with any kind of apprehensions that any new person has.”
After learning of the plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center’s Tower One shortly after she reported for duty that morning, Slifer and her coworkers gathered around an office television and witnessed the second plane crashing into Tower Two.
“I heard from Lieutenant Colonel [Reginald] Jordan that the Crisis Action Team had stood up…that was probably around 9:36 [a.m.],” Slifer said. “Two minutes into this spontaneous conversation about the Crisis Action Team, the building violently, violently -- and I can't say it, I can't emphasize it enough – shook.
“The only way I can relate it to you is like a flash tube went out…even before the flash was this freight-train sound. And, of course, things were falling – that was the collapse of the ceiling,” she explained. “We all began to crawl; I’d say we low crawled for about forty feet.”
Slifer and her coworkers began to make their way out of their workspace into the building’s smoke-filled corridors in an attempt to find an exit.
“We got up on our feet and we made a daisy chain…we were holding hands,” she said. “Someone was holding onto my backside pants. I don’t know who that person was, but it was comforting to have people near you.”
Slifer and her group of survivors made their way past sealed fire doors and impassable hallways to eventual safety.
“I felt calm. I was with my fellow comrades. I mean by that, Soldiers,” she said. “I knew I was going to get out okay. That’s why after we were told how many were actually missing, it just seemed, ‘How could that be?’ It’s not supposed to happen…it’s not supposed to happen at the Pentagon.”
A total of 189 people were killed at the Pentagon that morning – 125 inside the building, along with 64 passengers and crew on Flight 77. Once outside, Slifer led a small group in prayer.
“We seemed to rally together, and we started to look out for each other: ‘Have you seen so-and-so?’” she recounted. “People would give ‘Yes’ answers, of course, if they had; and if you didn’t – well, of course, you didn’t answer.”
Two weeks after the attack, Slifer was working the night shift at the Army Operations Center inside the Pentagon. She walked outside to view the full extent of the damage for the first time.
“I just looked at the area and felt that I had been violated,” she said. “Standing there, I just began to cry because of the emotions that I was thinking of, the feeling of guilt which I had right after the incident when I found out how many of my colleagues were missing.
“Standing in front of that building, all those emotions seemed to come to me and began to just fester, and I cried like I hadn’t cried since the death of my mother and father…it came from the depths,” she continued.
“A police officer, if I remember, came over to me and just put his arm around [me] and said, ‘You know, it’s going to be okay. It really is going to be okay.’” Slifer recalled.
“I needed to hear that,” she added. “It was the right time to hear that.”
(Information for this article was sourced from the 2003 Office of Army Reserve History’s publication, “The Role of the Army Reserve in the 11 September Attacks: The Pentagon,” which features interviews conducted by the 90th Military History Detachment.)