More than 300 people gathered on a patch of grass outside of 7940 Jones Branch Dr in McLean around 9:20 a.m. on Sept. 11.
In front of the crowd stood a podium next to loud speakers that played patriotic tunes like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Ray Charles’s rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
Above them, beside PenFed’s block letters and pentagon-shaped logo, a 30-by-60 foot American flag draped over the glass-paned exterior of the towering office building from which the workers had just emerged.
Workers at Pentagon Federal Credit Union’s headquarters, along with some employees of the consulting firm LMI, which is housed in the same building, joined millions of other Americans in spirit on Wednesday to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that irrevocably transformed the country 18 years ago.
“The family members and the loved ones of those who were killed, they live with this every day, 365 days a year for the last 18 years,” PenFed President and CEO James Schenck said. “So, it’s reassuring to them to realize all Americans stand behind them, and we have not forgotten either.”
PenFed’s 9/11 commemorative ceremony was modest. Schenck and other members of the credit union’s leadership team delivered brief remarks before calling for a moment of silence and a “Taps” sign-off.
However, like many companies linked to the federal government and based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, PenFed feels a particular connection to the tragedy, which saw 19 men hijack four U.S. commercial airplanes and directly kill 2,977 people by crashing the planes into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and land outside Shanksville, Penn.
Established in 1935 as the War Department Credit Union to serve military and defense workers and their families, PenFed has a flagship branch in the Pentagon, and over 20 employees were working there when the hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the west side, killing everyone on board and 125 people in the building.
As PenFed’s chief administrative officer at the time, Schenck led a group of employee volunteers on a six-mile walk from the credit union’s headquarters, which was then located in Alexandria, to the Pentagon.
Upon arriving, Schenck organized a checkpoint for PenFed employees across the street from the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters.
The image of the Pentagon burning and the surrounding wreckage remains strong in Schenck’s mind, but just as potent are his memories of ordinary, volunteering citizens stepping into the chaotic scene at the building’s parking lot to move people, get people into ambulances, and generally provide assistance to those in need.
“I saw Americans from all walks of life rise up to help one another and to lift each other up through a very difficult time,” Schenck said. “…It was really an amazing sight to see so many volunteers trying to save people and to provide comfort to those who are severely injured.”
All of PenFed’s employees managed to get out safely, and guided by the secretary of defense’s message that business should continue as usual, the credit union reopened its Pentagon branch the very next day with a staff of volunteers.
Following the 9/11 attacks, PenFed started and grew the Military Heroes Program within the PenFed Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting service members, veterans, and their families. The nonprofit organization has provided financial assistance, including financial education, credit-building, and homeownership services, to more than 140,000 members of the military community, according to PenFed.
For many people, however, the effects of 9/11 linger almost two decades later for survivors of the attacks and first responders, especially those who were at the scene in New York.
A Sept. 11 victim compensation fund created to support individuals who were injured or killed in the terrorist attacks or their aftermath issued almost $1.5 billion in awards on 8,619 claims in 2018, the largest amount of compensation it had granted in a single year so far, according to the fund’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya.
The fund has received 51,816 claims this year as of Aug. 31, 24,907 of which have been deemed eligible.
Legislation signed on July 29 by the president permanently authorized the victim compensation fund until Oct. 1, 2090, allowing funds to be allocated as necessary to pay all approved claims.
A World Trade Center Health Program established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide health screenings, monitoring, and treatment to survivors and first responders has more than 97,686 members.
Health issues experienced by 9/11 survivors and first responders range from respiratory and digestive conditions, such as chronic rhinosinusitis and asthma, to cancer and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depressive disorders, according to WTC Health Program statistics.
Ceremonies like the one put together by PenFed or even the larger, official wreath-laying and remembrance event held Wednesday morning at the Pentagon by the Arlington County government may seem slight in comparison to the suffering that so many people have undergone in 9/11’s wake.
Still, Jamie Gayton, PenFed’s executive vice president of member operations and global assets, sees the 9/11 anniversary commemoration as a way of giving employees time to reflect while reaffirming the company’s commitment to its 1.8 million worldwide members, many of whom are current or veteran military service members, first responders, and national security workers.
“We look to our communities and try to be with them, touch them, and support them on a daily basis,” Gayton said. “Doing a ceremony like this reminds everybody what’s important here in the United States. It’s important to take care of American people in our communities.”