On 9/11, remembering Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 11, 2009 

ARLINGTON, Va. — It's a mystery, this gravesite of Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert.

The naval intelligence officer is committed here, no doubt. Killed on 9/11, he's buried amid his Pentagon brethren.

In Florida, a newly dedicated Navy building now bears Tolbert's name. It's a solid structure, like the man it honors. But on the eighth anniversary of his death, Tolbert's Arlington gravesite also provokes the kind of ephemeral questions that arise wherever death and beauty mingle.

Who visits here, under gray skies or blue? What anonymous soldier left these flowers, this American flag? How will time wear the stone, where Tolbert's Sept. 29, 1962, birth date already seems to be fading?

"Scripture teaches us a hard truth," President Barack Obama said at a Pentagon ceremony Friday morning. "The mountains may fall and the earth may give way; the flesh and the heart may fail. But after all our suffering, God and grace will restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."

Tolbert, a native of Fresno, Calif., graduated in 1985 from California State University, Fresno, where the 240-pound defensive end played football. Then, like his father before him, he entered the Navy. He served overseas aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation and on the ground in Florida. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Tolbert was working inside a Pentagon intelligence office.

Fire consumed the office when al Qaida terrorists flew a hijacked American Airlines jet into the southwest corner of the building. Tolbert was one of the 125 men and women inside the Pentagon who died that day; another 64 died aboard the plane, including the five hijackers.

In the years since, Tolbert has been honored in different ways.

A conference room at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., was named for him. His name was affixed to portions of State Route 198 near Lemoore, Calif. Most recently, on Aug. 26, the military's Central Command dedicated the new Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert Joint Intelligence Operation Center in Tampa.

Already, sailors call the four-story, 270,000-square-foot facility "The Vince." It eventually will host about 1,300 civilian and military intelligence workers, and it's a big deal. The dedication service attracted members of the House and Senate as well as top military leaders, including Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command.

"I want you to know how much Vince loved his job," Tolbert's widow, Shari, said at the dedication, according to an official Central Command account. "He loved what he did, and he would be so humbled by all of this."

Shari Tolbert, now 40, eventually returned home to Clovis, Calif., with her three children after 9/11.

On the other side of the country, her husband's gravesite in Section 64, Site 4763 of Arlington National Cemetery overlooks the Pentagon. It's a 15-minute walk from the cemetery's visitor center.

Many of those killed in the Pentagon are buried in the same section. On Friday morning, modest red, white and blue bouquets and small American flags were set at each gravesite; presumably, by members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, the "Old Guard" members who protect Arlington.

Now, it's noon. It's still an anniversary day, but the Pentagon ceremony has long since concluded.

An ambulance siren caterwauls along a nearby highway. A bell tolls. Then, silence. Cemetery maintenance equipment rumbles nearby. Again, silence. A man comes and kneels at the grave next to Tolbert's; he crosses himself but says not a word. Another man comes, sets out a small stool in front of a headstone, and sits, as if he's prepared to wait for a very long time.

Silence.

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