WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attended a remembrance ceremony in the Pentagon’s center courtyard Tuesday to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Even as we mark 11 years since that horrible day, we know it will be forever engrained in our souls, in our hearts, as members of the Pentagon family, and as Americans,” Panetta said, paying tribute to the 184 people who lost their lives at the Pentagon that morning.
“They had done nothing, nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. We remember them and think of their families who have suffered through grief and heartbreak.”
Paying tribute also to the first responders who risked their own lives to save others, Panetta continued: “They struggled for air amidst thick black smoke as they pulled up the wounded who were trapped under mounds of debris.”
Panetta recalled the story of one Marine who, when asked by a reporter for his name, said that he wanted to remain anonymous. First responders like these, Panetta said, were motivated only by the “unbreakable commitment to leave no one behind.”
“Thousands reported for duty the next morning while portions of this building were still burning. Their determination showed our enemy that we would not be intimidated, that we would get back up and we would be even stronger than before.”
Referring to the death of Osama bin Laden, Panetta said that a resounding message had been delivered to America’s enemies. “No one attacks America and gets away with it.”
Panetta thanked the servicemen and women who have “carried the burden of protecting America for 11 years, relentlessly pursuing those who would do us harm.”
Vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James A. Winnefeld Jr., also spoke at the ceremony.
“They normally let the big guy go last, but our boss, that big guy had to go talk to another big guy,” Winnefeld joked, referring to a scheduled meeting between Panetta and President Obama at the White House.
Winnefeld, who was commanding officer of the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise at the time of the attacks, recalled the “gut-wrenching, sickening experience” of witnessing the events of the day unfold.
“I remember thinking that I was safer on a ship at sea, than my family was at home,” he said.
The Enterprise was en route home from a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf when it received the order to return to the gulf.
“As you go home today and you exit out the door of this building, please remember to thank the security folks who protect us here every day,” Winnefeld said. “It’s comforting to know that you understand the price of freedom.”
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama began the day by observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House before traveling to the Pentagon, where the president delivered remarks in a separate ceremony to a gathering of the families who lost loved ones in the attacks.