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20th Anniversary of 9/11 Tragedy Stirs Painful Memories for Retired Army Major General Hammond

Sleep taunts Jeff Hammond. Sleep does not come easily for him, and what little he steals is cluttered with agonizing memories. Those memories. Flashbacks borne from his darkest day – one that remains inconceivable for the retired U.S. Army Major General.

When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Hammond narrowly escaped with his life. Fate was not as forgiving to many of his colleagues in The Pentagon that morning. Hammond, an Army colonel at the time, was conducting routine paperwork in his third-floor office just minutes before a hijacked jetliner (American Airlines Flight 77) crashed into the west side of the iconic Department of Defense headquarters.

Almost two decades later, time has not diminished the sights; the screams; the smells; the chaos of that tragic event. Hammond can close his eyes and be right back there instantly.

“I cannot, even if I tried, forget the scene in The Pentagon on 9/11,” said Hammond, who serves as Director of the Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM). “Incredible people who didn’t deserve to die who moments before were alive as much as you and I are today. Heroic people saving lives. The smell of jet fuel burning The Pentagon roof. The numbing view of my office crushed like a soft drink can. The Pentagon courtyard transitioning to a medical triage point, and in some cases, a morgue. The sadness of seeing the great Pentagon gashed and burning.”

No indeed, peaceful sleep remains elusive for the 32-year Army veteran. Not when you are unable to shed the lingering pangs of survivor’s guilt.

“I lost wonderful people, both office-mates and others, whose lives can never be replaced,” said Hammond. “A day doesn’t go by where I don’t ask myself, ‘why not me?’ and then quickly I realize God had other plans with my life.”

The deadliest attack on U.S. soil claimed almost 3,000 lives, including the 19 al Qaeda extremists who hijacked four jetliners on suicide missions. Two of the planes struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; one slammed into The Pentagon and a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers attempted to take control of the aircraft. At The Pentagon, 125 military personnel and civilians were killed, along with all 64 passengers aboard the airliner.

That unforgettable Tuesday dawned crisp and clear in the nation’s capital, without a hint of the danger to come. An early riser, Hammond got to his office around 5:30 a.m. With his immediate supervisor – an Army Lieutenant General/Director of Operations – out of the country on vacation, Hammond expected a rather mundane day limited to administrative chores.

Televisions were mounted throughout The Pentagon office area designed to keep staff members informed of any breaking news related to congressional testimony or national defense. As he sifted through customary morning duties, Hammond paid little mind to the TV chatter until a staff member approached with startling news.

“He informed me that the Twin Towers were on fire and that something bad was going on in New York City,” said Hammond. “I immediately directed my attention to the television screen watching things evolve before our very eyes, much like most of the nation was witnessing in horror.”

At one point, a senior non-commissioned officer staff member asked of Hammond: “Do you think anyone could ever attack The Pentagon?” Hammond replied instinctively and without much consideration: “Unlikely, for if they did, it would mean war.”

War would come soon enough.

As the unimaginable drama unfolded in New York City, Hammond was summoned to a telephone call from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shineski, who was overseeing a strategic exercise in Kuala Lampur. Before he could react, Hammond was urged by a lieutenant colonel on his staff to leave the office area and relocate to the Army Operations Center in the basement of The Pentagon to establish communications with Shinesky.

Before departing his office, Hammond hurriedly told his staff members to expect a longer day than usual. He explained that he would be working from the basement and that they should plan to maintain formal office operations from their desks in the front office.

As Hammond raced down a hallway toward the basement, all hell broke loose. The hijacked Boeing 757 slammed into The Pentagon directly below Hammond’s office. He recalls a loud, thud-like explosion that jarred his senses. Smoke began filling the hallway, debris fell from everywhere and people were running in all directions seeking an escape. He heard screaming and crying. He saw the look of fear and confusion on countless faces. Hammond knew he had managed to cheat death by mere seconds.

“Bottom line, had my lieutenant colonel deputy not, in haste, encouraged me to leave my office for the Operations Center, I, just like members of our staff, would have died on that day and at that moment,” said Hammond.

Hammond was unaware that The Pentagon had been attacked until he reached the Operations Center. Inside the center large TV screens, used to monitor operational and current events, revealed the incredible unfolding disaster.

“I was shocked but quickly pieced together where I had been and what had just occurred,” he said. “At this point, the Operations Center was rapidly filling up with smoke, and the senior general officer Gen. Jack Keane informed the staff that the telephone system remained operational and that we should quickly make a phone call to our families.”

Hammond wasted no time contacting his wife, Diane, who was closely monitoring the news from the couple’s home in northern Virginia. Hammond made innumerable phone calls to Diane during his military career, but the one he placed on that somber morning is never far from his mind or heart.

“Think about that for a moment. If you had one minute to make the last telephone call of your life, who would you call and what would you say?” asks Hammond.

He continues, “She answered the telephone in tears and asked me if we were alright, and I replied that we are fine right now. And then I told her, ‘please know I have always and will always love you.’ At this point, I had to hang up and resume my duties.”

From Football to the Battlefield

Hammond, a native of Whittier, Calif., has built long and lasting connections to Hattiesburg, where he came to play football at The University of Southern Mississippi on a scholarship. He became a starting quarterback and team captain for the Golden Eagles before graduating in 1978 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education.

Following his retirement from the U.S. Army in 2010, Hammond returned to USM as a senior associate director of athletics. He followed that stint with one year as director of athletics before founding the Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families in 2014.

He met Diane Centanni, a Hattiesburg native, while they were both undergraduates at USM. Married now for 38 years, the couple has two children – Michael and Megan – and a one grandson, Paul Lambert.

“At USM, I learned more about leadership than at any other point in my life and, in doing so, met the love of my life who taught me how to remain grounded in respect for others,” said Hammond.

Most college graduates follow a professional plan developed years before they earn a diploma. Others are drawn to a different calling. Hammond credits his late parents – Bill Hammond, a salesman, and Dorothy Hammond, a homemaker, for inspiring him to pursue a military career.

“They were godly Christians who worked hard their entire lives to raise a family. To honor their wishes and expectations, I chose to earn a commission in the U.S. Army. I was blessed to be raised in a two-parent home full of love, care and accountability,” said Hammond. “My mom and dad experienced World War II, Korea and Vietnam and always instilled in me, my brothers and sister a grateful spirit to be living in one nation under God.”

The aftermath of 9/11 saw the United States declare war in Afghanistan while Hammond continued his steady climb through the ranks as a commissioned officer. In 2003, he served as assistant division commander of the 1st Calvary Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq. He later served as the Army’s Director of Operations, Readiness and Mobilization before taking command of the 4th Infantry Division in January 2007.

During a 15-month deployment in Iraq, Hammond commanded 28,000 troops of the 4th Infantry Division and the Multi-National Division that helped bring discipline and structure to Baghdad. Under his leadership, the division worked to double the size of the Iraqi security forces; build more than 200 schools, medical clinics and support facilities; create more than 500 jobs; decrease violence by more than 80 percent and conduct the first-ever, violence-free democratic election.

Yet, despite the many positive outcomes from that deployment, 94 soldiers were killed and many more injured under Hammond’s command in Iraq. Those casualties cemented more inescapable memories that feed his sleepless nights. Each soldier lost under his watch left a permanent scar on his heart – a fissure in his soul.

“A day doesn’t go by where I don’t mentally, and in some ways physically, drift off for a moment and feel immense sadness,” said Hammond. “The lives of our soldiers and their families is something that is always foremost in all things we as commanders do or don’t do.”

To honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, Hammond keeps on his desk a green bag containing a copy of the memorial service held for each soldier who died under his command in Iraq. “I am constantly seeking some sort of unspeakable strength and guidance from that bag when things get a bit tough,” he said.

Were Lessons Learned?

 

One might be surprised to discover that Hammond feels no hatred toward the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, or those who continue campaigns of terror against the United States.

“I choose not to hate, but rather forgive, as hard as that is, the terrorists who attacked our nation on 9/11,” he said. “Jesus teaches forgiveness, and he is my Lord.”

While stationed in Iraq, Hammond came to better understand the chasm that exists between most Middle Eastern cultures and the United States. Religion continues to play a pivotal role in anti-American sentiment. Hammond believes the hate directed toward the U.S. from terrorists and their supporters stems from a fear of the “American societal ways of life.”

“I spent many long hours in consultation with sheiks and tribal leaders who made it clear that they don’t want their religion and way of life shaped by norms that go against their prized beliefs,” said Hammond. “They don’t want their children exposed to anything less than the family and religious values they hold so dear and treasure. In my discussions, the greatest fear of those who choose to promulgate terrorism against the United States is simply the threat for a way of life that is polar opposite to what they believe.”

The United States became the world’s premier superpower by assembling the mightiest military; the brightest intelligence network and healthiest economy. And yet, did we let our guard down on Sept. 11, 2001? Hammond tends to think so.

“I believe, generally speaking, we as a country simply became too complacent with more interest in entertainment, self-gratification and individual comfort rather than sacrifice to ensure future generations are safe and secure,” said Hammond. “Not only that, it was clear from the 9/11 experience that our intelligence collection/fusion/analysis agencies were not synchronized, nor working together to view a common ‘picture’ of emerging threats.”

The hope and expectation from the disastrous events of Sept. 11, 2001 is that concrete lessons were learned. Hammond offers a few that resonate deeply with him – sentiments he gleaned from statements by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Gen. Colin Powell.

  • The U.S. should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the nation or its allies are involved.

  • U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning.

  • U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.

  • The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

Innumerable prayers were said when the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. More prayers went up when the second jet slammed into the south tower 18 minutes later. Undoubtedly, even more lifted skyward as The Pentagon burst into flames and United Flight 93 nosedived into the Pennsylvania dirt. When both towers collapsed, one can only imagine how many prayers filled the heavens.

Hammond, a man of profound faith, prayed hard that day. In his 65 years on this Earth, no day has provoked more earnest prayer.

“I pray all the time and always have,” he said. “On 9/11 it was a series of non-stop conversations with God asking for mercy and love for the families of those we lost. It was a terrible day in so many ways, and I still relive many of those moments.”

The great bard William Shakespeare wrote, “To sleep: perchance to dream.”

If it were only that simple for Jeff Hammond.