Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Quantico Cemetery Day of Service
September 10, 2021
Thank you, James [Sanders], for that kind introduction, and thank you all for being here.
Thanks as well to everyone who made this day of service possible—both here and across the country—including the great people of the National Cemetery Administration who planned this day of service and brought thousands of volunteers like us together to participate at 65 cemeteries across America; Todd Boeding and Carry the Load, our partner on this project since it began two years ago; Max Stier from the Partnership for Public Service; and Mary Tobin from AmeriCorps.
Today could not have happened—and would not have happened—without your hard work.
Most of all, thanks again to James—our great cemetery director here at Quantico who just gave me too kind an introduction—and to his fantastic staff.
I would rave about what an amazing job they do here, but, well, look around. I can’t say it any better than you can see it.
Thank you, James and team, for all you do.
You know, it’s about 9:15 a.m. That means that 20 years ago tomorrow, at almost exactly this time, the world changed forever. The first plane struck the towers at 8:46 a.m. The second hit just 17 minutes later. At that time, Flight 77 was still in the air—but it would crash into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. And the heroes aboard Flight 93 would soon realize what was happening, fight back, and crash their plane into the ground—giving their own lives to save hundreds of others.
All the while, courageous people streamed into the wreckage.
Policemen. Firefighters. Coworkers. Veterans. Active-duty military.
All of them making the bravest decision in the world—the decision to go into the towers or the Pentagon, up the stairs, toward the cockpit, into the danger—to save their fellow Americans.
… even if it was the last thing they’d ever do.
Tragically, for so many of them, it was. Altogether, 2,977 people were killed that day, including four people who now rest in this cemetery: Craig James Miller, a decorated army Vet of Operation Desert Storm who died while saving others in the towers; Jamie Lynn Fallon, a second-generation Sailor who was killed on duty at the Pentagon; Cheryle Sincock, an army civilian who worked in the Pentagon and was married to Chief Warrant Officer Craig W. Sincock; and Donald Dean Simmons, an Army Vet who was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. He loved nothing more than painting, crab cakes, and his wife, Peggy.
Forty-three others who were killed that day lay in rest at national cemeteries across the country. And no matter where you are, when you walk around these beautiful cemeteries, their headstones always stand out.
Because although they were 47 different people who lived 47 different lives and came from 47 different places—their headstones all share that same terrible date.
Twenty years ago, tomorrow.
There is no way to bring back those we lost that day, or those who died in the post 9/11-wars—no more than we can undo what happened that morning.
All we can do is honor them. Remember them. And today, thanks to the Veterans Legacy Memorial, we can send messages to them, too.
It’s a special thing, to have a place to send messages to those who are no longer with us. And it reminds me of one of the most touching, harrowing 9/11 tributes I’ve ever seen.
The tribute is from the mother of Mark Bingham, one of the men who was killed bringing down Flight 93, and it’s very simple: it’s his voicemail box from that fateful day and the following weeks.
There were 44 messages on Mark’s voicemail when his mother first checked it. And listening to them paints a devastating picture of a life well-lived, then taken, and the little world that shattered as a result.
At first, the callers are concerned. Mark’s roommate asking him to call her. His friends from the Rugby team nervously checking in, hoping they’d see him at the next game. Then Mark’s mom calls. And his dad calls, voice breaking, but still hoping.
Slowly, the messages transform from Rugby buddies just checking in to everyone asking Mark if he’s ok. And then they transform again—from asking Mark if he’s OK to knowing that he isn’t.
It’s one of the most devastating things you’ll ever hear. But that’s not where the story ends. Because even after it became clear that Mark was gone, his friends, loved ones, and strangers kept calling. To hear his voice. To thank him for what he did on Flight 93. To speak to him. To feel his presence. And to remember him.
I tell that story today because that’s what this place—this day—allows us to do.
Very few of us have a voicemail box to call those we lost on 9/11, or before, or in the years since.
But we do have this place, this beautiful place, where friends and loved ones and strangers alike can come to see those we’ve lost, talk to them, thank them, feel their presence, and remember them. And with the Veterans Legacy Memorial, we have a way to leave them our own messages, too, just like Mark’s loved ones did before us.
It’s a sad day, but we’re in the right place. And not only are we in the right place, but we’re in the right place together—and we’ve got some work to do.
I’m going to wrap up so we can get down to it, but first, I’ll leave you with this.
There’s one other message from 9/11 that has always stayed with me.
This time, the message came from a victim of 9/11: Brian Sweeney, a pilot in the Navy and passenger on United Flight 175.
It was a call he placed to his wife Julie just before his plane hit the World Trade Center. You may have heard it.
He says, “Jules, this is Brian. Listen I'm on an airplane that's been hijacked. If things don't go well, and it's not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, go have good times. Same to my parents and everybody, and I just totally love you, and I'll see you when you get there.”
“I’ll see you when you get there.”
Those voicemails—from Brian and to Mark—are heartbreaking reminders, if we need them, that the people who died that day aren’t just one-dimensional fallen heroes.
They had plans and worries. Places to go. Rugby to play. Loved ones to call.
They didn’t want to be a part of history, and they certainly didn’t want to be here. Like all of us, they just wanted to go home.
When we think back on a tragedy with the size and scope of 9/11, it can be hard to remember that individual humanity—especially as the years wear on.
We remember the number: 2,977 people killed. We remember where we were that day. We remember the anger, the anguish, of seeing the towers fall and the Pentagon burn. But perhaps the hardest thing to remember is that the people we lost that day aren’t just like us—they are us.
Craig James Miller.
Jamie Lynn Fallon.
Donald Dean Simmons.
The thousands of others lost that day.
They’re us. And we owe it to them to not only remember their deaths, but also to remember their lives.
So, when you walk around today, and clean the headstones of fallen heroes whom you may not know, please do so with that in mind. Remember those we lost 20 years ago, and the lives they hoped to live. And, to quote Brian’s heartbreaking voicemail, tell them you’ll see them when you get there.
Thank you all for being here, and for making this possible.
May God bless you, our men and women in uniform, our nation’s Veterans, those we lost 20 years ago, and their survivors. And may we always give them our very best.