There is a weighty silence, the kind that drapes the shoulders, at the gravesite of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert.
Time remains frozen. On this anniversary there is a blue sky above, as unblemished as it was 11 years ago.
That day, Tolbert showed up for work at the Pentagon, a naval intelligence officer born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
He was a week away from his 39th birthday, a big guy who once played football for Fresno State. His wife, Shari, whom he met while working at a Fresno movie theater, was at home tending their three children.
About 9:37 a.m., EDT, Tolbert was killed when terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the western face of the Pentagon. The blast and fire blew away the triple-locked doors meant to keep the intelligence staff secure. He was one of 125 Pentagon personnel to die that morning, along with all 59 people aboard the airplane. The hijackers lost their lives as well, but that was part of their job description.
The toll of the passenger jet turned suicide missile included an Army lieutenant general and a Navy rear admiral, a 69-year-old retired Army master sergeant, and a couple of 21-year-old sailors.
Among the victims aboard the disintegrated aircraft were two sisters from suburban Maryland, one 8, the other just 3.
“It was a day like this one; a clear blue sky, but a sky that would soon be filled with clouds of smoke and prayers of a nation shaken to its core,” President Barack Obama recalled at a Pentagon memorial service.
Afterward, the president and first lady Michelle Obama made an unscheduled stop at Arlington National Cemetery, where they walked to a collective memorial for those who died in an Oct. 26, 2009, helicopter crash in Afghanistan. At the memorial, as well as at several individual gravesites, Obama placed challenge coins, military medallions handed out for merit and motivation.
Others, identities unknown, already had placed small stones on some of the grave markers for the Pentagon’s 9/11 victims. A flat, oblong, earthen-colored stone with a tiny crack sat atop Tolbert’s. Other gravesites had more. All of the 9/11 plots had small American flags planted next to modest red, white and blue bouquets, each one small enough to fit into the palm of a hand.
Some of the 9/11 remains are now mingled beneath a five-sided memorial in Section 64 of the cemetery, a 15-minute walk from the visitors center. The memorial lists the victims’ names in alphabetical order and stands about 4 1/2 feet high, near the individual 9/11 gravesites. Tolbert’s marker is about 25 yards away.
“We pray,” Army Lt. Col. Tom Helms said Tuesday morning, “that we may remember their sacrifice.”
Helms is the senior chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. He wears jump wings and an 82nd Airborne Division patch. He has gray hair, a trim build and a soothing manner. He can’t dwell too much on looking back; today’s funerals keep coming.
“I spend a lot of time over in Section 60,” Helms said. “It’s where we bury a lot of our Iraq and Afghanistan guys.”
While Obama was still participating in the more choreographed Pentagon service, Helms was leading a very small remembrance at what’s formally called the Victims of Terrorist Attack on the Pentagon. Two other Army officers were with him, along with a gray-haired woman of dignified air. She was one of the Arlington Ladies, a volunteer who ensures that no cemetery service goes unattended.
Three civilians and a reporter stood with the officers and the volunteer. As 9:37 approached, Helms offered a Christian prayer, then asked for silence. In the distance, some sporadic muffled booms concussed the air. No one spoke. There was quiet time to read banners stretched across several wreaths placed on stands around the memorial.
“Remembering the Naval Intelligence Heroes,” one said.
The reporter’s iPhone buzzed with incoming messages, politicians putting their own gloss on the day.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus took the occasion to declare that “we remain committed to a strong national defense against the terrorists and extremists.”
The White House quoted Obama saying that “today, the war in Iraq is over (while) in Afghanistan, we’re training Afghan security forces and forging a partnership with the Afghan people.”
The service ended; the people scattered.
At a distant gravesite, in a different section, officers and enlisted men gathered. A Navy band struck up a tune, and with a measured pace, some mourners began moving toward a fresh grave.