On the weekend marking the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which almost 3,000 individuals lost their lives, including two Virginia Military Institute alumni, the Institute paid tribute to those individuals with a variety of observances involving many members of the VMI community.
Observances began at 8:30 a.m. the morning of Saturday, Sept. 11, with members of the VMI Board of Visitors conducting a short ceremony and laying two memorial wreaths at the base of the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead.
Giving brief remarks at the ceremony was retired Air Force Gen. John Jumper ’66, a former member of the Board of Visitors who was in the Pentagon that day. Just four corridors away, he noted, was Lt. Cmdr. David Williams ’91, who was killed when the plane struck the building, and less than an hour earlier, Charles Mathers ’62 died when a plane plowed into the first tower of the World Trade Center.
“Dave Williams and Charles Mathers died on the first day of America’s longest conflict,” said Jumper. “One served in uniform and the other was a civilian—the citizen and the soldier—the heart and soul of VMI’s mission.”
In his remarks, Jumper urged his listeners to strive for the sense of unity that pervaded the nation in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks.
“In that moment, we displayed to the world the sympathetic and unifying nobility of a truly great nation,” he commented.
New challenges will always arise to face new generations, and Jumper acknowledged this as he spoke of how he came of age during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, just as his father had come of age during World War II.
“Today’s generation must deal with a more complex world in need of compassion, empathy, more comprehensive cultural and social awareness; and deeply in need of principled leaders to ensure America endures as a truly great and strong nation,” the former Air Force chief of staff noted. “Those leaders are made here.”
In addition to Williams and Mathers, the 15 alumni who died in the global war on terror stand as examples of citizen-soldier heroism.
“Will we do all we can to make our nation, ourselves, and our Institute—through the generations of 182 years—worthy of their sacrifice?” asked Jumper.
Nearby, cadets participated in the 20th Anniversary 9/11 Memorial Event in Buena Vista at Glen Maury Park by conducting the 21-gun salute.
Also Saturday morning, more than 25 members of the 1st Class and others holding leadership positions were dropped off at the Arnold’s Valley overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway to begin a two-day, 46-mile march back to the Institute that would take them through parts of Bedford, Amherst, and Rockbridge counties.
The number of miles was chosen to commemorate the 40 innocent lives lost on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, plus the four planes that went down that day and the two VMI alumni killed in the attacks.
It is widely believed that by attempting to regain control of Flight 93 from the hijackers, the passengers aboard the doomed flight saved many lives, as the plane was likely intended to hit the U.S. Capitol building. As they marched from Arnold’s Valley, the cadets carried the names of the 40 passengers and crew on the plane taped to their rucksacks.
During the day Saturday, the cadets marched 21.6 miles to Rice Mountain Overlook, where they had dinner and camped outdoors overnight.
While the cadets were marching Saturday evening, approximately 250 cadets back on post participated in the 9/11 memorial stair climb, an annual commemoration sponsored by the VMI Firefighting Club that involves climbing 110 flights of stairs, the heights of the two World Trade Center towers that were hit.
Each participating cadet climbed the stairs in memory of one of the 343 firefighters, 61 law enforcement officers, and eight paramedics who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and many chose to carry the same weight of gear, 45 pounds, that a typical firefighter would have carried entering the World Trade Center.
Organizing the event was Dan Hamner ’22, cadet in charge of the Firefighting Club and a firefighter for the past seven years.
“The deaths of 343 firefighters showcased the core of American firefighting, risking life for the opportunity to save another,” Hamner stated. “To be able to honor their sacrifice, along with the sacrifice of 61 law enforcement officers and eight paramedics, by not only participating in this climb on the 20-year anniversary but being able to organize it, is one of the highlights of both my cadetship and my time in the fire service.”
Sunday dawned early for those cadets camping out on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a 5 a.m. wakeup, they marched the remaining 17.7 miles to VMI and then did 6.7 miles around the Parade Ground to complete their 46-mile journey.
Upon their arrival back on post, the 46-mile marchers joined up with the Rat Mass of 2022 plus three for another stair climb, also in barracks. This year, the rats earned their shoulder boards once participating in this stair climb and then marching around the Parade Ground.
Photos by Kelly Nye and H. Lockwood McLaughlin, VMI Communications & Marketing, and Sgt. Maj. Tom Sowers, Corps sergeant major.
Video courtesy Amy Goetz, VMI Alumni Agencies chief communications officer
Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing