FORT LEE, Va. — On Sept. 11, 2001, images of jets flying into the World Trade Center, Pennsylvania countryside and Pentagon were difficult to watch for Americans.
That was especially true in a Henrico, N.C., household, where a mother fretted over the whereabouts of her son amidst horrifying terrorist attacks on the nation’s military headquarters.
Twenty-three-year-old Sgt. William K. Wilkins’ duty station was roughly a five-minute drive from the Pentagon. His mother, Sarah Wilkins, was at work when word circulated about the strikes. Understandably, the proximity was troubling, and worse, she didn’t receive the routine daily call from him.
“I work the third shift, and before I left my job, I saw that the planes had hit the twin towers, and we couldn’t imagine what was going on,” she recalled. “By the time I left work and was going home, I heard a plane had hit the Pentagon. I couldn’t make contact with my son. I was going out of my head with worry. At that point, I was terrified.”
Sgt. Wilkins — now a 43-year-old chief warrant officer 4 assigned to the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command headquarters at Fort Lee — had good reason for not calling his mom. He was among the initial wave of responders to the Pentagon’s crash scene where a jetliner had plunged into the southwest side of the building.
Sgt. Wilkins had much to do with the garrison flag unfurled from the Pentagon roof adjacent to the crash site a day after the attack, which has become symbolic of the nation’s mourning, remembrance and resolve to overcome tragedy.
Twenty years removed from the incident, Wilkins said not many know he was present after the attack. He’s speaking up now because he wants his children, one an Airman and the other an elementary school student, to be familiar with his legacy.
“I want my youngest son to know what his father did,” said the Ordnance Corps Soldier.
In 2001, Wilkins was assigned to the Military District of Washington Signal Activity, Fort Myer, less than three miles away from the Pentagon. The 94E radio communications repairer and two subordinates operated and maintained a secure, commercial communications vehicle used as a mobile command center for emergencies in the Arlington area.
He remembered his “muscle memory kicking in” after receiving orders to respond to the Pentagon tragedy, locking in on his mission and not thinking of much else, including the daily call to his mother.
“After we were briefed on it, I didn’t really think about anything but fulfilling my role,” he remembered. “I was focused on getting there safely and not getting in the way of others. I was just thinking about the mission at hand.”
Tasked with providing mobile, secure communications on-site, Wilkins and his two Soldiers were the first communications team (external to signal assets inside the Pentagon) on the scene, arriving roughly 45 minutes after the 9:37 a.m. incident. The billowing smoke, sirens, flashing lights and gaggles of rescue personnel moving about were blurs, he said, but a powerful, noxious stench was unforgettable.
“It was indescribable,” said the Soldier of 25 years. “I can still smell it today, and I hadn’t smelled anything like it before or after.”
The odor was the result of a Boeing 757 — flying in excess of 500 mph with a near-full tank of fuel (according to records) — plowing directly into the first floor, resulting in a massive explosion that ripped up-and-inward into the building’s outer ring and causing extensive damage to two other nearby structures.
Wilkins, determined not to allow the devastation to be a cause for distraction, said he recalled the crackle and hiss coming from the charred wreckage site strewn with brick, twisted metal and debris still burning and smoking.
Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, the MDW commanding general at the time, and members of his staff began intermittently working out of the communications vehicle parked roughly 100 yards from the crash site. Wilkins said he and his fellow Soldiers initially kept a low profile, ensuring the equipment remained operable.
Their response mission, though, soon transitioned from rescue to recovery. Wilkins said the seriousness of what that entailed became starkly evident when he saw white body bags lined up on the Pentagon lawn. The moment awakened him to a devastating reality.
“On one hand, I thought I was prepared for something like that,” said Wilkins, who deployed to Bosnia-Hercegovina prior to his Fort Myer tour. “It was a totally different situation, though. This was the aftermath of [a tragedy] unlike any of us had seen.”
In total, 184 people died in the Pentagon attack — all 64 passengers on the plane and 120 on the ground. Scores were injured. While he was very much aware of the casualty count, Wilkins said he never allowed himself to think negatively.
“I needed to do my job so others could do theirs,” he simply stated.
Wilkins did his job and more. On the second day of deployment, when Jackson directed a staff member to hang the largest U.S. flag in the military’s inventory from the Pentagon rooftop, he jumped in to help.
“Basically, he directed a captain to put the flag up, but I knew one person couldn’t do it,” recalled Wilkins, noting past flag detail duties gave him familiarity with the standard’s weight (roughly 60 pounds) and dimensions (20-by-38 feet).
In addition to procuring the garrison flag amid the recovery operations, Wilkins and the captain arranged support from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (Old Guard). Its members were helping to recover remains, but Wilkins thought any Soldier assigned to the Army’s official ceremonial unit would be ideal in helping to display the nation’s colors.
“We met a guy who was like 6-foot-5, and we wanted him to help,” said Wilkins, pointing out the poster-worthy stature of the Soldier. Understanding how the moment of the flag presentation could be of historic significance, however, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the unit said he had another Soldier even better suited for the task.
“He called for a [private first class] who came out of a tent and stood around [6-foot-8],” said Wilkins, adding that the newly enlisted Soldier was more than confident about carrying the standard; he took ownership of the mission.
“We gave him the flag, and he said, ‘I don’t need help. I’ll take it anywhere we need to take it,’” the CW4 recalled him saying. “He wouldn’t let anyone touch that flag.”
Wilkins, the captain and The Old Guard member got the help of firefighters to access the roof. Because of safety concerns, they could not hang it closer to the damage, deciding upon an area to the right of wreckage site.
Determining how to hang the flag was the next challenge. Wilkins said he suggested opening it on the roof so they could properly unfurl it. The world would be watching, so failure was not acceptable.
“The captain agreed [with the plan], and he requested the help of the firefighters present to open the flag on the roof [to facilitate a proper unfurling].”
A photo of the moment shows seven firefighters anchoring the flag atop the building while the three Soldiers proudly salute the colors. The image has since appeared all over the world, and inspired postage stamp, according to Wilkins. When the flag was removed on Oct. 1 of that year, it was given to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.
Wilkins was a central figure for the museum presentation. With his family present, the buck sergeant wearing dress blues presented the folded flag — the same one providing a measure of assurance for a grieving nation amidst tragedy — to First Lady Laura Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton, as dignitaries such as Gen. Colin Powell observed.
Aside from the popular symbolism, the moments of opening and lowering the flag at the Pentagon came to hold special meaning to someone who only wanted to “do his job so others could do theirs.”
“Prior to that point of my military career, I was a strictly mission-oriented Soldier,” Wilkins reflected. “As I stood up there in that moment realizing what we were about to do there, it kicked in … how extremely satisfied and proud I am to be a Soldier in the United States Army.
“This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he continued. “The moment was a symbolic representation of resilience, and I was part of it. … I was filled with pride being a part of the greatest Army in the world.”
Wilkins’ mother is similarly overjoyed with her son’s accomplishments. She had prayed for his safety and that of others over the course of the historic incident, and later found comfort in the contributions he had made to the recovery operations. Her pride peaked during the flag presentation.
“I felt very honored to see my son in that position with such dignitaries as there were. ... I was one proud mother,” she said.
Mrs. Wilkins received the much-anticipated phone call from her oldest child during the later hours of Sept. 11. Sgt. Wilkins assured her that he was well, not in danger and performing his mission as a Soldier. His assuredness made her feel confident he was safe at a time when many mothers were grieving.
“When he told me he ‘had a job to do and I’m ready,’ I was relieved,” she said, feeling her son had crossed the threshold into manhood. “I felt the strength and courage in him. I knew he had become a Soldier.”
Wilkins’ assignments following 9/11 include a stint at the White House Communications Agency and two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a capabilities developer in the Logistics and Material Readiness Directorate at CASCOM.