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9/11 Memories – Michael Cowan

Image of (graphic) Vice Adm. Michael Cowan, retired, former U.S. Navy Surgeon General. Vice Adm. Michael Cowan, retired, former U.S. Navy Surgeon General

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When he took office as the Navy’s Surgeon General on Aug. 10, 2001, now retired Vice Adm. Michael Cowan employed one of his leadership rules: Keep quiet until you know what’s going on.

“I have always had the personal policy of staying as quiet as possible for 30 days, then setting my strategic goals for the organization,” said Cowan, who is now the director of AMSUS – The Society of Federal Health Professionals. “On September 10, that task was complete. I had five major goals for command emphasis during my tenure as leader of Navy Medicine ready to roll out to my staff.”

The following morning, he recalls, was such a beautiful, sunshine-drenched autumn day the doors and windows of the Headquarters’ main conference room were left open to relish the delicious weather during the morning leadership meeting. Halfway through, Cowan said, he was called out of the meeting.

“My frantic staff was telling me that the United States was under attack, and that two skyscrapers in New York City had been struck by jumbo jets,” Cowan said. “In short order we heard the collision of the third jet into the Pentagon just across the Potomac River. We thought we must have missed the memo that a war had started.”

From the Surgeon’s General headquarters in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C., the sight of the smoke plume rising from the Pentagon against the otherwise preternaturally blue sky was surreal, Cowan remembers.

“My first profound thought was ‘Well, you just don’t see this every day…’ ” Cowan said. “Even now, that fateful day marks a stark dividing line between everything that occurred prior, and the events after. And for many, the world continues to be utterly different. I think that must have been the way Americans felt on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.”

Cowan said he took three immediate actions:

  • Gave the order to tighten base security to its maximum security posture; and released all designated “non-essential” personnel to go home.
  • Walked into his office, picked up the list of five priorities and threw it into the trash.
  • Summoned Force Master Chief Weldon and sent him to the BUMED signals locker for new flags.

For years preceding Sept. 11, 2001, Navy Medicine’s motto was “Standing by to Assist”, with that message in flag code flying outside all Navy Medical Facilities.

“Master Chief Weldon returned with the appropriate signals, whereupon we struck “Standing by to Assist” and raised “Steaming to Assist.” And it remains today.”

Then, he said, he gave more orders for personnel to go home. Few had obeyed the first one. Someone suggested that nobody wants to be called “nonessential,” Cowan recalls, but he doesn’t believe that. He feels all hands were desperate to do something – to help in whatever way possible.

Towards the end of the day some of the personnel who had run to the Pentagon returned to the office.

“One in particular, Cmdr. Steve Frost, started the day in a crisp summer white uniform, and after several forays into the burning Pentagon to retrieve casualties, he looked like he had been rolled in an ashtray,” Cowan said. “Steve was one of many who risked everything to help their shipmates at sometimes great peril to themselves, but I remember his valorous compassion in particular. And I feel proud to this day to have been the leader of the likes of such people. Then we launched the USNS Comfort hospital ship to support New York City.”

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