JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – September 11 marks not only the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that day in 2001, but it also comes on the cusp of the United States pulling out of Afghanistan. For one Alaska Army National Guard Soldier who was near the Pentagon that day, it is a time to reflect.
Master Sgt. Melissa Branch, the Alaska Army National Guard state religious affairs noncommissioned officer, was in the Marine Corps at the time, working as a chaplain’s assistant for the 14th Chaplain of the Marine Corps.
“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 demolished in 2013 in part to make space for the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery, overlooked the Pentagon. The new commander had stepped out of the meeting there. When she returned, she informed Branch the World Trade Center had been hit by a commercial airline.
Before Branch could escort Meehan to the Pentagon, they had to stop by the security office at the Navy Annex building for the necessary paperwork. At that point, they didn’t have reason to believe a threat was imminent, though on the way, she 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,” said Branch. “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 explained.
At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 flew over the Navy Annex and crashed into the side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 onboard and 125 people in the building.
“The Navy Annex [wasn’t] a small building,” said Branch, “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 take off running to get out of the building,” she continued. “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 now we’re standing in the median between the building we just left and Arlington National Cemetery. We look in front of us at the Pentagon, and all we see is a gray cloud of smoke.”
When many people think of first responders, firefighters, police and paramedics come to mind. However, in times of crisis, often overlooked first responders are the spiritual practitioners who respond to console and comfort people who experience trauma. Branch said they immediately got to work.
“We started first by locating our fellow workers,” she said, “and then we walked around the parking lot [where everyone else had gathered] for hours making sure that people were OK. At noon, we went into 24-hour pastoral support, and within minutes, we had 40 chaplains and 10 religious affairs personnel on standby.”
Branch said the day was so busy 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 reflected. “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.”
She continued to be busy for many days, working at least 12 hours a day. She worked at a temporary crisis center set up at a nearby hotel, and eventually returned to the Navy Annex to answer 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 enlisted in the Arizona National Guard in 2008 before transferring to the Alaska Army National Guard later that year.
Branch continues to work as a spiritual adviser for fellow Soldiers. She says her experience that day in Washington 20 years ago 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.”