TUPELO • On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Maj. Gen. Bob Chesnut, now retired, was part of an Army Reserve Forces policy committee briefing in a newly-renovated section of the Pentagon.
Chesnut served as assistant G-3 for mobilization and reserve affairs. He advised the G-3 and Army Chief of Staff on Reserve and Army Guard affairs, including training, mobilization, strength and readiness. He’d been working at the Pentagon about 15 months.
As the Tupelo resident recalls, it was a beautiful day.
“There was not a cloud in the sky,” he said. “It started out as a normal day.”
Then, at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
The committee took a 10-minute break discuss what was believed, at the time, to be a possible accident. As they talked, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower.
That’s when Chesnut knew.
“This is going to be terrorism,” he said. “It’s not an accident.”
'We're probably next'
Although retired from the military, Lt. Col. Palmer Triplett with the Army Special Forces had worked in the Pentagon during his last five years on active duty. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, he’d returned as a contractor to oversee a small group of people that helped the joint staff with counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, personnel recovery search and rescue and humanitarian de-mining.
He and his colleagues were on high alert after watching the planes hit the World Trade Center.
“As we’re standing there, talking to each other, still watching the screen as the two towers burned, several of us just made the comment to each other, ‘We’re probably next,’” Triplett said. “And of course, we were.”
Just 34 minutes after the second tower was struck, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing 184 individuals — 125 in the Pentagon and 59 passengers and crew members aboard the flight.
Triplett didn’t even hear or feel the plane’s impact; the Joint Staff Special Operations Office, where he worked, was located on the opposite side of the building.
As alarms went off within the building and most employees evacuated, Triplett’s boss told his group they couldn’t go. Their office dealt with counter-terrorism, and the nation was under attack.
Impact and exit
Minutes after the second plane had struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Chesnut received a phone call. It was Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff.
He was curt in his assessment:
“I don’t have to tell y’all what’s going on,” Chesnut recalled Shinseki saying. “We’re at war.”
Chesnut and his coworkers were told to assemble the crisis action team, which was in the middle of the Army Operations Center in the Pentagon’s basement level.
Chesnut took an escalator down to the basement level to get some things. As he was coming back up, Flight 77 crashed into the building.
Unlike Triplett, Chesnut felt the impact.
“I didn’t see the fireball,” Chesnut said. “The concussion was enough, it almost blew me off the escalator.”
Through smoke and lack of electricity, Chesnut was able to reach the top of the escalator and exit the building.
Chesnut later learned that is secretary, Diane Hale-McKinzy, who had been in the role for only a couple of weeks, died in the explosion at age 38. And although Chesnut and Triplett didn't know each other that day, they lost a mutual friend who worked at the Pentagon — Army Maj. Cole Hogan Jr., who died at age 40.
'Just doing what I was asked to do'
Around 11:30 a.m., Triplett left the Pentagon, tasked with taking documents to the National Military Command Center for reference and planning. Upon his return, the door was locked. He didn’t have access as a contractor, so he went to the office’s assembly point near the bank of the Potomac River.
By that point, the entire building was filled with smoke, and Triplett’s boss told his team to go home. They’d done all they could do, but needed to be back in the morning. About that time, a couple of doctors from the Pentagon’s clinic came running out to their location and asked if anyone would be willing to go back inside and help with medical triage.
Triplett and two others decided to go. He was issued protective gear for his way through the building to the central courtyard: a simple paper dust mask and a pair of rubber gloves.
He was assigned to a team to help those being brought out of the building by firefighters. At one point a building manager unlocked the building’s restaurant and told the volunteers they could give soft drinks, ice cream and sandwiches to firefighters as they came out of the building.
“I asked one of them, ‘Is there anybody still alive? Are you going to bring us anybody else to work on?’” Triplett said. “He says, ‘There’s no chance at this point. If we haven’t gotten them out by now, they’re not coming out.’”
Triplett said what he did that day was “nothing heroic.”
“(I was) just doing what I was asked to do and what I felt was right to do at the time,” he said.
Securing the homeland
After the initial chaos settled on Chesnut’s side of the building, he was able to get down to the Army Operations Center. The first order of business was to “secure the homeland,” Chesnut said. Next was setting up a training base to mobilize the Reserve Guard and train active Army members at the same time. Within two weeks, troops were on the ground in Afghanistan.
“The Army was at a disadvantage because we were pretty much the main agency involved or in charge of this, and yet over half of our capability was knocked out,” Chesnut said. “The computers were melted. We had about 200 people down in the Army Operations Center for the next month-and-a-half, and it was equipped maybe to have a third of that many people.”
Chesnut said the attack was something neither he nor anyone else anticipated.
“Everybody there that was involved that was in a uniform got combat pay for one month because we were actually involved in armed conflict with an enemy force,” he said. “You’d never think that would happen in the nation’s capitol.”
Reuniting with family
Triplett had been talking on the phone with his wife, Lera, when the second plane struck the World Trade Center. He told her, “I’ve got to go.”
He tried to call her back after the plane hit the Pentagon but couldn’t get through. All of the phone lines were blocked. And only authorized telephones were allowed in Triplett’s office, so he and his coworkers couldn’t have cellphones there.
In the courtyard, where he helped with triage, some people had cellphones and would try to help others reach loved ones.
“If you were standing around them, they would summon you over, and you’d give them your wife or husband’s phone number, and they would try to have their wife or husband call,” Triplett said.
Lera Triplett received a call at home around 3:30 p.m. from a coworker of her husband’s in Estonia who was calling to check on her husband. She told him she didn't know where Triplett was or if he was alive.
“He says, ‘Don’t worry. He’s in the other side of the Pentagon. He’s fine. He’ll be home eventually.’” Lera Triplett said. “I was reassured from somebody in Europe that my husband was alive 25 miles away.”
Triplett finally headed home that afternoon around 2 p.m. The two nearest Metro train stations were closed, so he walked roughly three miles to one that was open and took the train south. Triplett reached the end of the line around 4:15 p.m., but he was still about 15 miles from home so he walked over to a restaurant and called his wife to pick him up.
It was late in the evening before Chesnut could finally call his wife in Tupelo and leave a message letting her know he was OK.
“She just knew it was bad,” Chesnut said. “She could see where the plane hit, and she knew that’s where I worked, so she was pleased to find out that everything was all right.”
‘A major defining moment’
Chesnut retired from the Army Reserve in 2006 after 38 years of service. He still works as a certified financial planner at Ameriprise Financial in downtown Tupelo, a company with which he’s worked for 36 years.
For several years following the attack, Chesnut witnessed a strong rush of American patriotism the likes of which he’d never experienced.
“I was one of those guys that went to Vietnam and came home and got spit on,” Chesnut said, adding that it was a difficult time to serve. The days after 9/11 were different.
“To me, this was as much like World War II as you could imagine, when anybody would offer to help you, take you, give you a free ride,” Chesnut said. “People left their jobs, their families, they volunteered to come serve. It was unbelievable.”
Unfortunately, that wave of patriotism subsided in following years, Chesnut said.
Chesnut describes 9/11 as a “major defining moment” in his life. He’s more observant of blessings, thankful to be alive and is closer to his family “knowing that it could’ve all evaporated overnight.”
“I’m very appreciative to my wife for all she did because I was a geographic bachelor for three years,” Chesnut said. “There was no way she could come up there. She kept the business going and kept our livelihood going. I was working 18 to 20 hours a day for probably close to a year before it started any semblance of settling down into a battle rhythm.”
After 9/11, Chesnut had the opportunity to work with people he never dreamed he would and achieve things he never believed possible.
“It did make you very proud to be an American, and I would say that we can never forget 9/11,” Chesnut said.
For a couple of years after the attack, Triplett was involved in plans to strike back. President George W. Bush wanted to ensure there were search and rescue teams in place when the first missions were flown in the Middle East so that if pilots were shot down or crashed, there would be someone there to rescue them. Triplett helped set that up.
In 2003, he resigned from his job at the Pentagon and worked for a company that trained those working search and rescue in Afghanistan and Iraq.
September 12: Another quiet morning
As Triplett was leaving for work on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, his wife walked outside with him. That was a shift from their normal routine.
“It was the most peaceful, beautiful, quiet morning at that hour,” Lera Triplett said. “I told Palmer, ‘It’s hard to believe what happened yesterday. But you’ve got to remember that God’s in control. We don’t understand any of this, but He does.’”
Palmer Triplett agreed.
“God is in control, not the terrorists,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
For a period of time, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, gave Americans something to focus their efforts on. They put aside politics, racism and anything else they might think is wrong with the country, Triplett said. To him, it was a time when Americans stood together as Americans.
“I hate to say it, but we’ve lost that focus now,” he said. “We really have.”
Triplett has a painting on his wall of Jesus’ hands mending a tattered American flag titled “If My People” by Jack E. Dawson. It’s inscribed with a Bible verse — 2 Chronicles 7:14 — which reads, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Triplett sees that verse as a guide forward for the nation.
“If we turn our faith back to where it should be, then our country will pull through and survive,” Triplett said. “If we don’t, we’ll stay fragmented. From where I stand, that’s what it comes down to.”