At 9/11 Walks, Remembrances Stream Forth

Participants stroll from the Pentagon to the Mall as part of Freedom Walk.
Participants stroll from the Pentagon to the Mall as part of Freedom Walk. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 12, 2005

On a Sept. 11 as sunny and warm as that earth-shattering date four years ago, thousands of people yesterday remembered the terrorist attacks by walking in the nation's capital. Some strolled past the Pentagon, cheering for the troops abroad, and others walked solemnly from churches to mosques to temples as they prayed for peace.

The Freedom Walk, sponsored by the Pentagon as a tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks and as a rally for U.S. troops, was a tightly controlled event. Thousands of preregistered walkers put on free T-shirts and poured from the Pentagon onto the Mall, where they plopped down in the shade and listened to country music star Clint Black.

And along Embassy Row in Northwest Washington, hundreds of people representing a wide spectrum of religious faiths held a Unity Walk to recall the spirit of togetherness that the United States felt after the attacks. There were colorful banners and saris and flowing, white tunics.

Across the region, the day was a patchwork of emotions. There were upbeat smiles, antiwar outbursts, pro-war sentiments, patriotic cries, tears for Sept. 11 victims and the veil of grief for the Gulf Coast.

"It says 'Freedom Walk,' but that's not why I'm here," said Lashawn Dickens, 33, pointing at her Pentagon-issued T-shirt. Her 11-year-old son, Rodney, was killed that day on Flight 77 -- which hit the Pentagon -- as he headed off on a school trip. "I'm here to support my son. It should say 'Rodney Dickens Walk.' "

Dickens said she usually spends Sept. 11 in a "quiet space," thinking about her son. But this year, she said, "It was hard to focus on my son when we see so many people suffering" from Hurricane Katrina.

On the Pentagon walk, helicopters flew overhead and dozens of police officers carrying many plastic handcuffs, ready to make arrests, smiled to walkers along the route. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld joined the walk and was treated like a rock star, hounded by passersby who begged his Secret Service detail to snap their photos with him.

"I wish I remembered my permanent marker so he could sign my T-shirt," one woman lamented after shaking Rumsfeld's hand. Patricia Rivera, 26, an Air Force enlistee, gasped and said: "Oh, my. What an honor! What an honor!" after having her photo taken with Rumsfeld.

A few war protesters who registered for the event turned their Freedom Walk shirts inside-out and, using black markers, replaced the shirt's red-and-blue logos with their own political sentiments.

Their presence prompted an occasional verbal parry. One flash point was along Independence Avenue, where a few people shouted and held up signs critical of the war and the Bush administration.

"USA! USA!" marchers chanted in reply. "Mindless idiots!" a man shouted at the protesters.

One protester, Rik Silverman, 27, of Arlington said he was holding a sign that said, "Shame on You" when a marcher leaned over the railing and punched him in the stomach. A U.S. Park Police officer wrote a report but no arrests were made.

Although the Pentagon required walkers to preregister for the event, officials did not provide a crowd estimate. Metro officials said about 4,000 people arrived at the Pentagon's Metro station yesterday morning.

The scene included a mix of soldiers and toddlers, baby strollers and backpacks. Some people attended to support the military. One woman waved to cameras that were streaming a live feed of the walk to troops in Iraq, then blew a kiss and mouthed, "I love you!"

Some marchers wore the names of family members or friends who were serving in the military or who had been killed in action.

Austin Hamner, 45, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who recently served eight months in Iraq, wore a black T-shirt bearing the names of two soldiers he knew who were killed by a car bomb in Baghdad: Sgt. Clinton Lee Wisdom, 39, and Spc. Don Clary, 21.

Hamner wore the shirt "so that their names are remembered, because that's the problem -- they get too many names and everybody forgets. They just remember that it was a war."

Others said they showed up because it was the best way they could think of to remember the victims of Sept. 11.

Before leaving the Pentagon's parking lot, Renee Baldwin, 53, stopped and sighed. "I remember when I came to this parking lot to recover my sister's vehicle," she said, patting her shirt, which bore a photo of her sister, Cecelia O. Richard, an Army budget analyst killed in the attack. "I think about her all the time. And today, boy, today is still hard."

The attack on the Pentagon also resonated with Army Lt. Col. Steve Whitmarsh of Burke, who marched with his wife, Gwen, and sons Jeffrey, 9 and Scott, 6. He said he was inside the Pentagon when the plane hit.

"It seems like it was just yesterday," Whitmarsh said. "It was just a dark, sad time, and a time of national resolve -- kind of like what we're seeing [with] Katrina right now." As he spoke, he sat about 100 yards from the spot, now landscaped and pristine, where the plane hit -- and where military personnel were leading groups of marchers on brief tours of the site and the remaining, charred stone saved from that day's searing fire.

Kevin Pannell, who stood on his prosthetic legs, said the Sept. 11 attacks still take their toll on the nation.

"I lost my legs in Baghdad, and 9/11 was the initiative," said Pannell, 27, of Woodbridge. "The longer it goes since it happened, the less people seem to think about it. I think about it every day. We don't need to forget 9/11."

Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company