FLORENCE, S.C. – Frankie Welch remembers picking her brother up from the airport upon his return from Vietnam, like it was yesterday.
“We got a flat tire on the way back to Turbeville and no one would even stop to help us,” Welch said. “That’s the way it was back then. People didn’t treat our servicemen and veterans like they deserved to be treated. It was sad. It still makes me sad to think about it.”
But it’s that experience and her brother, Welch said, that now prompt her to celebrate veterans and being American every chance she gets – the latest being Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attack.
Welch and people from across the Pee Dee gathered Saturday morning at the Veterans Park in Florence to commemorate that somber day in American history and remember the lives lost.
Barry Jones, a civilian employee who was in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the Pentagon at approximately 9:45 a.m. that day, was the keynote speaker for Saturday’s event. Welch said listening to Jones recall the horrors of that day gave her chills.
“It was so interesting to hear what he went through, and you can tell it’s still hard for him to talk about even today,” Welch said. “I stood right up there and just cried. We all cried as he told what he went through. I know I’ll never forget that day, and I wasn’t there. I can’t imagine what he went through. It still makes me emotional.”
Jones was director of access control and part of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. As part of his job, he was responsible for issuing badges for everyone who entered and left the building. So he knew many people who were killed in the attack. It’s still hard for him to discuss the events of that day, but he said he feels it’s his responsibility to share.
“Of the approximately 125 people lost that day, I knew about 90 of them from my day-to-day work,” Jones said. “It was terrible.”
Jones’ story hit close to home for many at Saturday’s memorial event, especially the service members and veterans.
James McLaughlin, district commander of the VFW and a veteran of the Army, National Guard and Army Reserves, was among those who said Jones’ recollection of Sept. 11 brought back vivid memories of that horrific day.
“I was at work that morning, just a normal day like any other or so we thought,” McLaughlin said. “I remember a staff member running from the breakroom and saying a plane had just hit the world trade center so we all went to the breakroom to watch. And it was surreal, breathtaking. Like looking at a movie. It was just hard to believe what we were watching was actually happening.”
McLaughlin later served in Afghanistan and said the Sept. 11 attack had significant ramifications for America’s armed forces. Many were activated and deployed to the Middle East in response to the attacks.
“It’s a reminder that freedom is not free,” McLaughlin said. “If it wasn’t for veterans who serve and our families – who serve in their own way, too – we would not be the land of the free. Some give some and some give all, and I just thank God that He allowed me and the rest of these veterans who are here today to come back. I look out and see all the uniformed servicemen and women standing around us on the perimeter of this service today, and it symbolizes freedom for me. This is what it’s all about.”