Pentagon survivor shares 9/11 experience, promotes preparedness

By Beth Reece Belvoir Eagle

Retired Lt. Col. Robert Grunewald Photo - Teodora Mocanu

Retired Lt. Col. Robert Grunewald Photo – Teodora Mocanu

The scars are just one of several reminders that take retired Lt. Col. Robert Grunewald back to September 11, 2001.

“Whether I meet someone who was there, see a picture that takes me back or receive an email from a 9/11 foundational group, it never goes away. Sure, my memory is not as sharp as it used to be, and the pain is not so severe, but it never completely goes away. It never will,” Grunewald told employees during a Patriot Day observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex, September 10.

Grunewald was in a morning staff meeting when hijackers deliberately crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Darkness and an eerie silence immediately followed, and dense smoke flooded the room.

“It took us several minutes to move ourselves from the searing heat and choking jet fuel. Many of us survived; unfortunately some did not,” he said.

Thirty-two of Grunewald’s coworkers died; many others were injured. For bravely helping others reach safety, Grunewald was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal. He also received a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained that day.

Most Americans were mesmerized by news coverage of 9/11, Grunewald said.

“I know many of you watched the news that day and following days and marveled at how well our nation responded to the 9/11 tragedies. You remember how the country came together. You recall how we seemed a little bit nicer to each other, a little more respectful, a little more polite (and) a little more helpful. We were more courteous and a lot more patriotic. In my opinion, we need to get back to that,” he continued.

Grunewald said that being a “Pentagon survivor” gives him a unique perspective on disaster preparation and events being held this month as part of 2014 National Preparedness Month.

“It may not be a plane or a bomb, but are you prepared for the next disaster? Did you look at the exit doors when you came into the room today? Trust me. When the lights instantaneously go out and you’re plunged into darkness, (it) is not the way and not the time to think about how you get out of a burning room,” he said.

Employees should also be familiar with their agency’s continuity of operations plans so they know what actions to take following an emergency and can contact fellow employees. Because such plans were lacking in 2001, it took officials three days to determine who died, who was injured and who was missing after the attack, Grunewald added.

While many Americans may believe they’re immune to the terrorism they see displayed almost nightly on the evening news, Grunewald said the 125 people who died at the Pentagon on 9/11 are proof that senseless violence can and does hit close to home. Never take our great country for granted, he told the audience.

“Take a moment to be thankful you’re an American,” he said. “Take a moment to volunteer for your community, your school, your house of worship, or your neighborhood. Take a moment to do something nice, to be more courteous, just like we were 13 years ago. And take a moment to thank a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman.”

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