This article is part of a series in observance of the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. InDepth asked CNA analysts to submit their memories of that day and how it shaped their careers as national security professionals. In this post, we present eight stories of how the events of that day shaped the careers of these analysts.
Strategy and Policy Analysis Program
The events of September 11, 2001, had a profound impact on my life. At the time, I was an undergrad student on the West Coast, with plans to earn a business degree leading to a career in marketing. On that tragic Tuesday morning, I opted to sleep through my early morning Business Law class. I awoke when one of my roommates burst into the room to tell me that the United States was under attack. For the remainder of the day, my roommates and I sat transfixed by the disaster unfolding on the television screen. Until that point, I had kept myself fairly uninformed about what was going on in the world. I had no idea why someone would commit such horrific acts against innocent civilians.
I felt compelled to act, but instead of enlisting in the military, I decided to find another way to serve and support my country. The next semester, I enrolled in my first international affairs class. I changed my minor to political science and filled my schedule with as many related courses as it would allow. After graduation, I moved to Washington, DC, to pursue a career as a national security professional. While working at various nonprofits and think tanks, I narrowed the scope of my future career and attended one of the top graduate programs in security studies, where I focused on irregular warfare. And I joined CNA, conducting research on a variety of projects to prepare U.S. Marines to deploy to Afghanistan. I also coauthored a book on counterinsurgency tactics used in various parts of that country.
In 2011, I deployed with CNA to Afghanistan in support of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal battalion. I spent seven months — including the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 — at Bagram Air Field, where I analyzed enemy activity and identified trends in the use of improvised explosive devices. Over the course of several years, I traveled back to Afghanistan five more times for research projects.
For two years, I was on loan from CNA to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. I often took varying paths to meetings in the Pentagon to see different parts of the building, including to pay my respects to those who were lost when hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the building. Following that assignment, I spent four years as an on-site CNA field representative to a special operations command. One of my various analysis projects included tracing and reconstructing the history of a piece of the World Trade Center, which reminded me of why I first pursued and have remained in this fulfilling line of work.
Safety and Security
Institute for Public Research
On the morning of 9/11, two fellow CNA analysts and I arrived for a meeting with Navy clients in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. We were met by our sponsor, who said the meeting had been canceled, and the government was shutting down because of a terrorist attack. We didn’t know what was happening. We got back in the car to drive back to CNA, and the roads were clogged with people leaving for home. It took us close to two hours to complete what would normally be a 15 minute drive to CNA. Sidewalks were filled with people walking because public transportation had shut down. On the radio, the news was reporting all sorts of crazy things. It was a surreal day, and I didn’t realize at the time how it would shape the rest of my career at CNA.
Several weeks later, on Friday, October 12, I was going on leave to prepare for the birth of my first child, when I got a call. We had been working with the DC Department of Health on bioterrorism preparedness, and they urgently asked for our help in developing a plan to distribute a CDC “push pack” of antibiotics that had been pre-staged in Washington, DC, after the 9/11 attacks. Though we were unaware of any immediate bioterrorism threat to DC, I worked over that weekend with colleagues Neil Carey and Rosemary Speers, DC officials, and the CDC to develop the plan. By the end of the week, we knew that DC was already under a bioterrorism attack, when the first DC postal worker was admitted to a hospital with anthrax. Five people would eventually die from the attack, but many were also protected when DC started distributing prophylaxis to all potentially exposed postal workers, using our plan. The plan became a model for other jurisdictions. Revised and updated many times over the years, some local governments have even been using modern versions of that plan to implement COVID vaccination programs.
Later, I and other CNA colleagues worked with a variety of agencies on post-9/11 initiatives, including FEMA and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at Health and Human Services. The Top Officials Exercises we supported in 2002 and 2004 were shaped by 9/11 and the terrorist threats our nation faced at the time. For FEMA, we supported the development of a capabilities-based planning construct that is still used today at all levels of government. And we wrote the first National Preparedness Reports that sought to assess whether we were achieving the goal. All of these efforts continue in various forms. My career and CNA’s work continue to be shaped by 9/11.
Dr. Christine Hughes
Principal Research Scientist
Strike and Air Warfare Program
On September 10, 2001, I left Manhattan, where I was a biochemistry postdoctoral fellow, and flew to Washington for an interview with CNA the next day. I was eating breakfast in my hotel the next morning when I saw a report on TV that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers and then watched the live feed of the second plane crashing. I reported to at CNA 10 a.m. and was given the chance to reschedule my day-long interview. But where could I go? I stayed for seven hours of interviews. I did not even know that the Twin Towers had fallen until the evening. I spent the night at the hotel watching the news, crying, and wondering how I would get home.
Though air traffic was still grounded, Amtrak was functioning the next day. My first glimpse of Manhattan through the window of the rail car was devastating to me as a ninth-generation New York City resident. The gigantic fire at the World Trade Center was still visible from across the river in New Jersey. I arrived in Penn Station to see National Guardsmen spaced 10 feet apart (comforting) and the loudspeaker blaring that there was a bomb threat (not comforting).
In the next days, I learned that dozens of people from my school and university had died in the towers. Several were firefighters, police officers and financial traders. My Upper East Side apartment windows had to be shut for a week because of the burning debris that crept three miles uptown and settled in a thick black dust.
I retreated to Upstate New York, where I made a life-changing decision. I would not stay in academia. I would go to work at CNA. I would work with Ed McGrady on chemical and biological weapons defense to help the Navy in the coming fight. I had no understanding at all of the armed services at that time, but I felt a moral obligation to take this step. My 20th anniversary at CNA will be in January 2022. I have never regretted the decision I made in the aftershock of September 11.
Dr. Allen Hjelmfelt
Senior Research Scientist
Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Program
On September 11, 2001, I was already scheduled to head to Bahrain within weeks to become the CNA field representative to Fifth Fleet/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. In the days following the attack, I hurriedly wrapped up my affairs and made arrangements to move my belonging to storage. Despite the initial shutdown of commercial air traffic and restrictions on coming into theater, three of us from CNA made it to Bahrain by the end of September to support the command’s response — kudos to CNA’s Field Office. I joined a very tired Angelyn Jewell, the CNA analyst I was supposed to replace at the billet, to work with the strike team. So started a two-year blur of a tour that gave me a front-row seat to two momentous events. Very rarely can a person say they watched history being written. Over the course of two wars, I got a chance to work with a number of great analysts, both at CNA headquarters and as they came to Bahrain. Some even lodged in my flat.
What I remember most about that day was the chaos at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where I was posted at the time, when they realized we might be a target. I recall the smoke drifting up from the Pentagon, the eerie quiet as I drove home later that day. I remember my mom’s relief to hear that I was okay, and her tears when I told her I was still going to the Middle East.
Safety and Security
Institute for Public Research
On the morning of 9/11, I was a second-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, studying public health. I was getting ready for my first class of the day when the phone rang. I let it go to the answering machine and heard my mother’s voice telling me to turn on the TV. I stared in disbelief for hours at the images coming out of New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. At one point, I needed a break and went outside. I walked around campus aimlessly, struck by the juxtaposition of what I had been watching moments earlier and the scene of college kids milling around campus as if it were an ordinary fall day. Ann Arbor seemed a million miles away from the horrors unfolding on the East Coast.
My interest was in cancer research, but the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax mailings spotlighted massive deficiencies in our nation’s public health and health care systems to respond to mass casualty incidents. On the advice of a family friend, I emailed Paul Speer at CNA. When an offer came through, I took the job not knowing what I was getting myself into. I figured at best I would stay at CNA for a few years, learn something new, and find my way back to cancer research.
It’s been 18 years, and I’m still here. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated, the nation is still struggling with how to prepare for and respond to major public health and medical disasters. In graduate school, I didn’t hear even a single lecture on the role of public health in emergency preparedness. Now, most public health schools have concentrations in the subject. On that tragic fall day in 2001, I would never have predicted that I would devote much of my professional life to examining how government agencies and private sector institutions should plan, train, and exercise for the worst that we can imagine — and then respond.
The work has been at times rewarding (supporting response after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita); stimulating (studying the psychology of decision-making under extreme stress), fun (traveling with colleagues to conduct a pandemic exercise at the Spallanzani Infectious Disease Research Institute in Rome); frustrating (watching the same mistakes repeated over and over again); and infuriating (witnessing the collapse of public trust in science and government institutions). I’m quite confident that I would never have found my way to CNA if not for the events of 9/11; it’s one of few positive outcomes I can take away from that day.
Dr. Gerald Meyerle
Principal Research Scientist
Countering Threats and Challenges Program
On 9/11, I had just started my first year of graduate school in international relations. Those attacks drove me to focus on counterterrorism and irregular warfare, to become an expert on Pakistan and learn the languages spoken there. I was motivated to understand what gave rise to jihadist terrorism and to develop the deep cultural and regional expertise necessary to understand the problem.
Within months of joining CNA, I deployed to a remote location in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. Later, I deployed again to serve as an analyst with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan and on various efforts related to Pakistan policy. The importance of the mission and the dedication of military and civilian officials involved in it made the time away from my family necessary, though I did not always agree with U.S. policy and had misgivings about the approach to Afghanistan.
I look back on this period as flawed, but that is the nature of war and human responses to danger. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help the military in the missions it was given in Afghanistan and the Middle East. And I’m proud to have contributed to important deliberations at the national level, to have been part of something bigger than myself. Answering the call when the military goes to war is important for a national security professional. It is one of the reasons I chose to come to CNA in the first place.
Dr. April Herlevi
Senior Research Scientist
Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Program
To put it bluntly, if the 9/11 terrorist attacks had never occurred, I would likely not have pursued a career in national security. At the time, I was in my last semester as an undergraduate student in political science and economics at North Carolina State University. Two days a week, I served as an intern in the Raleigh district office for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. That morning, we were fielding phone calls from constituents and planning events for the fall when our most seasoned staffer heard news of “an issue” in New York. He gathered everyone in the office as we tried to comprehend what was occurring. Moments later the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
We were all in shock, standing in the congressman’s office, not sure what to do. Soon we heard about the attacks in Washington, DC, and were trying to contact our House member, but the phone lines were all busy. His wife called the district office, desperate to get in touch with her husband, and all we could tell her was that we would be in touch as soon as possible.
Less than a month later, I interviewed for a job with the U.S. Navy, and began my career as a federal civil servant for the Defense Department. I conducted social network analysis of terrorist organizations, examined informal financial networks known as “hawala” and terrorist money laundering. I later served as an overseas security protection specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the years since, my federal and academic careers shifted toward East Asia, and I became an analyst with CNA’s Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Program, but I know for certain that 9/11 fundamentally altered my career path.
Senior Principal Radar Engineer
Systems, Tactics, and Force Development Division
My reaction to 9/11 and how it shaped the rest of my life is probably different from that of many at CNA because of my background. I’m a Vietnam vet who served first in the Navy on a destroyer and then on the ground in Vietnam with the Marines. After discharge, I worked in industry for most of my career on the development of weapons systems. That background set the stage for my response.
When 9/11 occurred, I was devastated. I will always remember the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania and feel pride in how they took matters into their own hands and prevented that plane from hitting the U.S. Capitol or the White House. At the time, I was working in industry on the development of a missile system, which has since gone into production. 9/11 caused me to work harder and with more purpose on that program, always with the people who would be using it foremost in my mind. That mindset is still with me.