Edited excerpt from Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan

Take Off Your Shoes and Run

“Take off your shoes and run,” the security officer called to me. I’ll never forget his words or that moment on September 11, 2001, when hundreds of my White House colleagues and I were evacuating the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), the grand Victorian building next door to the West Wing.

At less than five feet tall, I don’t have the leg length to run quickly, but I ran as fast as I could to exit the White House complex. 

Earlier in the day while in the cafeteria at the EEOB, I learned that two planes had attacked the World Trade Center. Minutes later, I was watching TV news reports when the third plane hit the Pentagon. The news anchor reported that the EEOB was on fire, but it turned out to be an optical illusion with smoke coming from the Pentagon across the river in the distance. My husband and I had driven by that side of the Pentagon on our way to work about an hour before the impact.

A White House colleague—and a friend from our mutual service on George W. Bush’s Texas gubernatorial staff—rushed into my office. With tears streaming down her face, she told me to get out of there. The possibility of a fourth plane striking the White House was very real. Soon the official evacuation order came. We fled the safety of the EEOB and West Wing complex into the abyss of chaos that erupted in downtown D.C. when the whole city was evacuated.

On that unforgettable day, my job responsibility was developing and designing the content for the official White House website—which we had just re-launched with a new design on August 31, 2001. I was working on a new page highlighting President Bush’s education initiative, but I never posted that page. 

Instead in the days that followed, we created new posts detailing America’s multi-front response through diplomatic efforts, military attacks, financial blocking of terrorist financing, intelligence, and humanitarian aid. 

I’ll never forget attending the memorial service at the National Cathedral and witnessing a collective grief unparalleled in my lifetime. I can still picture the photograph that we posted on the White House website of President Bush standing at the lectern in the cathedral to address a nation that was confused, dazed, and scared. I remember being temporarily stuck from exiting my row because members of the clergy had surrounded Billy Graham in the back of the cathedral. I was so close to Graham, I could have touched the hem of his garment, to borrow a biblical phrase.

When I think about September 11, I choose to remember these things: the courage of those first responders, those who lost their lives, and America’s strength, resilience, patriotism, and commitment to freedom.. 

A few days after the terrorist attacks, my mother shared with me Psalms 91, a biblical passage that encouraged me. I found it fascinating that Psalm 91:1 (9/11) brought such a powerful message. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” and in verse 11, “he will command his angels concerning you.” 

When the White House security officer called out to me to take off my shoes and run on that unbelievable day, he was acting as an angel, a guardian from God.

Years later, my 9/11 evacuation experience led me to research the only other time the White House was evacuated, when the British burned it on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812. I was so inspired by the heroism of Dolley Madison’s evacuation, her angelic guardianship of the White House painting of George Washington, her decision to start an orphanage in the aftermath, and the outpouring of patriotism by average Americans, that I wrote a book, The Burning of the White House. She became known as the very first First Lady because of her transformation from a hostess into a humanitarian.

Through both historic events, I realized that out of great evil can come great love. Renewal of love of God, family and country is what I wish for my fellow Americans today as we reflect on the 20th  anniversary of September 11, 2001.

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