As the country and all of us—civilians, active military, and veterans—honor the 20th anniversary of 9/11, CPL’s David Gergen talks with Dana Born, Brigadier General USAF Retired, about where she was on that day, what lessons we should draw on 20 years later, and the role of public service in the larger constellation of civic responsibility.

Gergen: Where were you and your family on 9/11?

Born: I think all of us remember where .we were on that day. I was commanding as a lieutenant colonel at Bolling Air Force Base. Both of our children were in the Pentagon daycare that day—our oldest was almost three years old and our youngest was just an infant at four months. My husband, who is a retired Marine, was working in Old Town Alexandria and left the moment he heard of the attack to evacuate the girls. I had to go immediately into our command responsibilities, responding to the terrorist attack.

Gergen: Can you tell us what “command responsibilities” means in this context?

Born: After we saw the Pentagon had been hit, my husband’s sole responsibility was focused on picking up the girls at the Pentagon. I was holding a Commander’s meeting in our conference room when a sergeant burst in and said “Ma’am, the Pentagon’s been hit.” I looked across the river and saw a huge plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon. I immediately called my husband and he said he was already on his way. Immediately afterwards my squadron and I went into crises mode to execute our command/mission responsibilities—accountability of personnel, casualty assistance and reporting, recovery of remains and family assistance for those in need.

Looking back, my big takeaway was just how magnificently Airmen responded. Prior training was critical; however, equally importantly was the sense of urgency, imagination, ingenuity, split second decision making and astonishing teamwork to respond to an unimaginable crisis.

Gergen: This was crisis leadership playing out in front of your eyes.

Born: It was. And upon reflection there were ways that I and others responded that proved surprising. There was a lot of trauma in figuring out just where to start, while at the same time trying to contain one’s emotions to focus on the task at hand given all the uncertainties – particularly with regards to the status of loved ones. I believe what happened is that in order to get out of the freeze and shock natural human response, we had to think about our roles…as a parent, a commander, or as a critical member of a team. When we do that, we rally quickly and effectively.

Gergen: Were people at the Pentagon encouraged to leave? Must have been hard to figure out where and what was safe.

Born: Absolutely. Alarms sounded and people started evacuating the building immediately. Given the enormity of the devastation, those in the impact zone had difficulty figuring out where it was safe to exit. Sadly, the fate of some was determined by the simple act of turning left or right upon exiting the office and into the corridors.

Gergen: It sounds like prior preparation was key in those first moments. Any other reflections?

Born: I agree, prior preparation, practice and procedures played a key role in conducting an orderly evacuation during the first moments and many offices had designated rally points outside the building where evacuees could muster for accountability purposes. I believe the most inspiring stories are of those of evacuees who placed themselves at risk by courageously returning back to the Pentagon to help rescue those injured in the impact zone on the western side of the building, and others who assisted in evacuating infants and toddlers from the Pentagon’s daycare center on the north side.

We may never know the names of these unsung heroes; however, I know there are many like my husband and I who will always be grateful for their selfless act of courage in assisting to evacuate the Pentagon and its daycare center. Our eldest daughter (like others of her age) experienced significant trauma with all she witnessed and exhibited the classic signs of regression immediately afterwards. With the help of child psychologists arranged by the Pentagon daycare center, our oldest daughter, Hanna (again, then just under 3 years old), was able to gradually work through her trauma and fears although it took several years to do so.  What has been rewarding has been seeing her resilience –enabling her to transform her trauma into strength and a life filled with purpose and dedicated in service towards others. Following graduation from Georgetown this December, Hanna enters pilot training where she hopes to be provided the opportunity to fly the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter for Air Force Special Operations Forces (Combat Search and Rescue). Sublimely, I believe her passion and purpose evolved out of that that pivotal day.

Gergen: There is a lot of literature in the leadership field about crucibles, and how these leadership challenges shape you. Can you talk about that?

Born: I think about that a lot right now. So many of our Afghan veterans are confronting their own personal crucibles precipitated from their wartime service and made even more pronounced as a result of recent events in Afghanistan. They have experienced trauma we cannot imagine—and asking “what was it all for?” And wondering how we pivot and what can we do as veterans in terms of thinking about the future. As a nation, how do we transform how we’re hurting about this into action? And one of the things I’ve learned at the Kennedy School, is that there are so many ways to serve the public.

Gergen: Can you talk a little bit about the impact of 9/11 on our military and country?

Born: 9/11 was a clarion call inspiring Americans into service that might not have occurred otherwise. I believe the social conscious of the country also changed. 9/11 unified the country into a common purpose unlike any singular event since Pearl Harbor. Younger and older developed a greater understanding that our freedoms and way of life are easily threatened and must be protected. Most notably, countless young people were inspired to join the military during the past twenty years wanting to do their part in combatting the global war on terrorism (GWOT) and to become part of something greater than themselves.

As a nation, you could see the number of American flags going up around the country. Everyone was trying to create that resolve as a country to heal together and not allow ourselves to be something different than we are as a nation.

Gergen: How do you think we should we be observing the anniversary?

Born: First and foremost, as individuals and as a nation we must pause to honor the fallen on 9/11.

We should also reflect on what America has lost and what it has gained fighting the GWOT these past twenty years to try and answer the overriding question “Was it worth it?” perhaps even more relevant in light of what we’ve recently witnessed unfold in Afghanistan.  Americans will have different answers to what we’ve gained; however, I believe everyone will agree that we’ve lost too many of America’s greatest treasure. Regrettably, as in all wars, it is the young, the best and brightest that America has to offer that shoulders the heaviest burden and pays the greatest cost. To these veterans and their families who have served and sacrificed, America owes an eternal debt of gratitude. Included in this is the sacrosanct obligation to honor their service in both word and deed. In President Lincoln’s words, whatever the cost, it is our nation’s responsibility “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

We also need to ask questions about what is the role of the Armed Forces in nation-building? The military has many roles –warfighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief. After 9/11 it also assumed the role of nation building – one we weren’t necessarily prepared for or trained to do. We built roads, bridges, educational and finance systems, and also educated and trained the Afghan armed forces. However, as recent events have shown, not in a model or manner that they could sustain themselves since we failed to understand the religious, cultural and political dimensions of a civilization that counts its age in millennia versus centuries.

Gergen: Do you envision a future in which we have a broadened idea of service?

Born: I am absolutely an advocate for national public service. However, I don’t believe the public will support legislating a requirement for the same, and without a unifying event to galvanize the country into a common purpose I believe it will become more challenging to get individuals to voluntarily subscribe to this ideal. Our task is to convince Individuals of the virtue of public service– of its humility, selflessness, and intrinsic reward. Once individuals have a taste of “my life matters for something bigger than self,” I believe they will find it addictive upon discovering that their life has meaning.

Dana Born, Brigadier General, USAF Retired
Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
Faculty Chair, Senior Executive Fellows Program

David Gergen
Professor of Public Service, Harvard Kennedy School