WASHINGTON, D.C.-The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was full of "mundane minutia" for Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, then 39. His boss was hosting a conference at the nearby DoubleTree Hotel, but Birdwell and two civilian colleagues stayed back to take care of administrative tasks at their office in the Pentagon, where Birdwell had been on active duty for 16 months.
The three of them soon turned on the news to watch what was unfolding in New York. Birdwell stepped out to go to the restroom, telling his colleagues that he would be back momentarily. "Those were the last words I spoke to them," he told me.
Just as Birdwell was returning to the office, Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at about 500 miles per hour, about 15 yards from where he stood. Birdwell caught on fire and his lungs burned with smoke. He remembered thinking, "So, this is the day God has chosen for me."
It can be argued that the Pentagon is the memorial to the most casualties of 9/11: In addition to the 184 killed there on that day, thousands more have died in wars as a result of 9/11.
In Iraq 4,474 U.S. military personnel have been killed, and 22,452 have been wounded. In Afghanistan 1,738 U.S. military personnel have been killed and 8,651 wounded. Birdwell thinks Americans, a decade away from 9/11, are insulated from "the nature of warfare."
But Birdwell's final day hadn't arrived on 9/11. A sprinkler activated and doused the flames on his body, and he struggled down the hall, charred and bleeding, to other soldiers. They commandeered an SUV and drove him to Georgetown University Hospital, where he asked one of the soldiers to take his wedding ring and give it to his wife because he thought he was dying.
Burns covered 60 percent of his body, and about half of them were third-degree, so a nurse in the emergency room had to remove the wedding ring. His thumb had melted into his palm. Several days later, crews found his two colleagues' remains. The trip to the bathroom saved you? I asked. "The Lord's the one that spared my life," Birdwell said. "I'm the closest guy to the initial impact point that survived."
On Sept. 13, President George W. Bush visited Birdwell, by then transferred to Washington Hospital Center's renowned burn unit, calling out "Colonel Birdwell!" and saluting.
Birdwell tried to return Bush's salute and revealed the raw, unbandaged flesh on his arm, bringing tears to the president's eyes, according to Birdwell's wife Mel.
Birdwell survived, but at some point in his four-year recovery-which included 39 surgeries as well as horrific infections-he wished he had died. The pain from recovery was at times worse than his initial burns from the crash. The hellish experience gave Birdwell "the opportunity to be bolder about my faith," he said. Before the attack, "Mel and I were very quiet and unassuming. We were behaving as the world wants you to. 'Keep your faith to yourself.'" Now, for Brian, Mel, and their 22-year-old son Matt, 9/11 is "a day we remember what the Lord did in our lives."
Ten years later, Birdwell's body is mostly healed, even though the scars remain. His arms are completely grafted, his face, ears, and even his eye sockets have been reconstructed. He can't rotate the thumb that had melted into his hand, but he can grip using it now. The damage to his lungs was "the most residual wound," he said, and he can't do much running before becoming terribly winded.
In 2004 Birdwell retired from the Army after 20 years of service, and in 2010 he was elected in his home state to the Texas state Senate. He and his wife Mel started Face the Fire Ministries to support the critically burned and their families. They often visit Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which has the military's only burn center, populated with critically burned soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"They are where they are because of what happened to our nation on the 11th," Birdwell said. "The people we honor are not just those that died that day, but those who have died because of that day."