Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct information about who inspired Captain Blevins to become a volunteer firefighter.
The smell of diesel is all it takes to transport Jim Bangle back 20 years to the Pentagon and the gaping hole in the headquarters of the world’s most powerful military. The experience reinforced some of the clergyman’s deeply held beliefs.
For Phillip “Bucky” Blevins, a veteran of Afghanistan, his memories of the war are fresh and often make him consider the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that triggered the conflict. Recently, he’s wondered if it was worth the sacrifice and cost. The U.S. Air Force captain has come to a firm conclusion.
On that Tuesday 20 years ago, the Rev. Jim Bangle, a longtime Smyth County pastor, was serving as a chaplain for the Richmond division of the FBI.
Blevins was sitting in a classroom at Marion Middle School.
The day indelibly changed both of the men’s lives.
September 11, 2001
On that sunny and warm day, terrorists coordinated the hijacking of four commercial airliners and turned them into weapons, attacking symbolic targets, including the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. United Airlines Flight 93 was intended to strike another target – most likely the U.S. Capitol, where the country's legislators were in session. Flight 93 was only 20 minutes from Washington, D.C., when passengers onboard were able to crash the Boeing 757 into an open field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The four strikes took the lives of about 3,000 people. The day marked the largest loss of emergency first-responders answering the call to a singular tragedy in U.S. history
Agents with the Richmond FBI office were among the first on the scene at the Pentagon in northern Virginia. As a chaplain assigned to the office, Bangle was immediately deployed.
When he arrived, smoke was still rising from the strike that claimed 184 lives – men, women and children. He remembered everyone standing in a semi-circle starring at the hole in the building that revealed desks and work spaces where individuals had been at work.
“It was a pretty shaking experience,” he recalled this week.
Bangle, dressed simply in khakis and a clergy shirt, devoted himself to being present to anyone who needed him. Those who sought ministry were young and old. “Nobody had experienced anything like this,” Bangle said. Chaplains were responsible for helping the workers stay focused and on task.
Yet, Bangle said, the work was intense and disturbing. A morgue was established on a loading dock on the Pentagon’s north side. At the end of each day, the remains and possessions recovered were transported to Dover, Delaware, in a helicopter. Unfailingly, Bangle said, an FBI agent accompanied the remains.
To this day, the smell of diesel takes Bangle back to that time. That odor from running generators mixed with that of jet fuel and permeated everything.
While Bangle would later be deployed to serve at the Virginia Tech mass shooting and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he spoke of the incredible sadness and life-changing nature of 9/11.
Yet, the clergyman acknowledged that goodness made its presence known.
Bangle reflected that Fred Rogers’ admonition to look for the helpers in scary times was wise. In the aftermath of 9/11, he said, “There were a lot of helpers.”
Restaurants, he remembered, brought in trailers and gave away food. Various clergy and service organizations lent their help. “If you stood still for more than five minutes,” Bangle said, “someone with the Red Cross would bring you a bottle of water and a granola bar.”
He even recounted watching a massage therapist rub down a service dog that had been searching the debris.
Bangle frequently prayed, “Lord, Don’t let me get in the way of what needs to happen.”
Though much younger than the minister, Bucky Blevins also felt called to bring goodness into the situation.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was in homeroom at Marion Middle School. His homeroom teacher, Angie Blevins, turned on the news.
The young man, who would follow in the footsteps of Odie Hutton, a volunteer firefighter who answered a fire call at the Blevins' home in 1993, and become a first-responder, said, “We were all mesmerized in disbelief of the attack on our Nation. In the days after the attack, an immense sense of pride and patriotism consumed me and arguably everyone in the county. We bonded together as a Nation in an unprecedented way. For a short time, we viewed ourselves as “One Nation,” and not divided by race or other socioeconomic statuses. It’s that sense of patriotism that has led me to serve our community and later our Nation. The sense of duty and country was palpable – even to a sixth grader.”
Following the terrorist attacks, investigations quickly revealed that the terrorists were members of al Qaeda, an organization working out of Afghanistan.
“Like presumably most Americans,” Blevins said, “I remember being swelled with hatred immediately after the attacks. I harbored anger and a desire for revenge for a long time.”
Time, experience and knowledge changed Blevins.
“As I grew from an adolescent to an adult, and maybe more telling, from a civilian to a military officer, my views on Afghanistan changed substantially…. As a young adult, I came to understand the mission of eradicating terrorism and providing stability in the Middle East. As a military officer, I came to understand the sacrifices our service men and women have made -- some being the ultimate sacrifice. I grew to appreciate that these sacrifices were not made in vain, but rather to make America safer.To make the world a better place. As a military officer in the heart of Afghanistan, I was never more proud to be an American.”
A year ago today (Sept. 11), Blevins stood on top of Bagram Air Field’s headquarters in Afghanistan. At midnight, he and Major Joey Smith hoisted a United States flag over the headquarters. “I remember thinking about what lead us to the war and the many sacrifices that followed.”
Blevins offers a different perspective than those found on and among “the talking heads of major news networks.”
Now stateside, the captain, an attorney, serves as Area Defense Counsel at Moody AFB Georgia.
While news outlets “paint a picture of a military failure in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” Blevins said, “As a Afghanistan veteran, I can say that is a textbook juxtaposition.”
Still, witnessing the scenes that show the brutality of war, even at its end, Blevins said, “…I have scratched my head in the last month and wondered… ‘Was it worth it?’”
“My family didn’t pay the ultimate sacrifice like so many others did, but they paid in other ways,” he noted, continuing, “After some deep reflection, I can overwhelmingly say it was worth every second of our 20-year war. Over the last two decades, America brought stability to a war-torn country. We helped women stand up for their rights, we provided educational opportunities for children, we stared into the face of evil and brought justice to the Americans who lost their lives on 9/11. Our 20-year war made America, and the world, a safer place.”
“On this anniversary,” Blevins said, “I hope my fellow community members and veterans reflect on their own sacrifices. More importantly, I hope they realize their service was not in vain. I, for one, would put on my battle rattle and head into theater tomorrow if asked.”
For Bangle, who is now serving as an interim pastor and as the Marion Police Department’s chaplain and was on scene last summer as the officers helped protect the community during civil rights protests, his reflections turn to human vulnerability and an ever-present source of strength. “It puts everything in perspective,” he said. Even the most powerful military in the world is vulnerable.
“God is our refuge and strength,” Bangle concluded.