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Pentagon Survivor LTC Brian Birdwell July 18,2002 USMA 1961 Luncheon Speaker

At the quarterly USMA 1961 luncheon on July 18th at the Ft Myer Officer’s Club, LTC Brian Birdwell was the guest speaker. Approximately 43 classmates, wives, and friends were there at one of the most heavily attended luncheons to date.

For those that may not recognize the name, Brian is a Pentagon 9/11survivor. He is a member of Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield Virginia, which is also the church of John and Barbara Neiger…and John is the one who invited Brian to speak at the ’61 luncheon.

You may have heard about President Bush visiting patients after the terrorist attack and the story of him saluting a burn patient…and then holding the salute when he noticed the patient struggling to salute in return. That patient was Brian, though he doesn't remember it well because of the massive amount of drugs he was on by that time. In fact, Brian’s wife Mel filled many parts of the story from the point where Brian was in the hospital since she was there day and night. As she explained this particular story, she related that Laura Bush was in the room first. Mel remembers thinking, “I've been in the same clothes for 3 days and here’s the First Lady hugging me!” Then Mrs. Bush said there was someone else who wanted to visit with Brian…and in walked the President of the United States …who also hugged her 3-day-vigil clothes.

Brian began the story by saying that he was completely conscious the entire time until he received drugs at the hospital. What he described was “a fiery hell that I would not want for myself or anyone else to spend eternity in.”

On the morning of 9/11 Brian said his office had been watching what had happened in NY...he then stepped out to the men's room. Had he not done that, he said, he “wouldn't be standing here talking to you now.” He was just heading back down the hall to his office when the building exploded in front of him. He had a pretty good idea of what had happened considering what he had seen on television already. The flash fire was immediate and the smoke was thick. The blast had thrown him down, giving him a concussion. He wanted to head down the hall toward the A ring...but because he couldn't see anything he had no idea which way to go and he didn't want to head in the wrong direction. He was sure at that point that he would die…then he did what no military person is ever taught to do...he gave up. He stopped struggling to get up and just lay down on the floor, then realized an automatic sprinkler had put out the fire on him and soaked him thoroughly.

At that point, Brian said, he could see a glint of light toward the A ring because the smoke had actually lifted a few inches off the floor. He managed to move toward the light and found people to help him. One guy was one of his good friends...who did not recognize him as Brian kept telling him to call his wife and tell her he was okay. But the name tag on his uniform was intact which is the only way his friend finally knew who he was. Ambulances were not close to where they came out of the Pentagon, so a woman volunteered to drive and said the only hospital she knew how to get to was Georgetown University Hospital which, it turns out, has the only ER in the area specially trained to handle burn victims...and had trained under the best, cutting edge burn doctor in the U.S. Once they stabilized Brian, they transferred him to George Washington Hospital where...the best, cutting edge burn doctor in the U.S. The doctor told him that had he not gone to Georgetown first, he probably would not have survived because of the jet fuel in his lungs.

Brian interspersed much humor throughout his talk…one time noting that he’s had many types of skin grafts…self-donor, artificial, cadaver…and enough pig skin grafts that he could be his own football.
The strength of Brian’s wife Mel was very evident, and she also offered much good humor to go with her story that exuded incredible courage, strength and devotion. She told of the time some of the Washington Redskins visited Brian and, to her utter amazement, he was able to name each guy there regardless of the drugs he was on!

Brian, of course, gives much credit to all of his doctors and to Mel for pulling him along, encouraging him, and being there for him. But he said he wanted to make it very clear that it was by the sovereign hand of God that he survived. He said he has been a Christian for 30 years, so when he prayed in the middle of the fiery hell, it wasn't a “Hey God, if you are real…” prayer, but a prayer to the Sovereign God  who reigns that His will be done.

Brian’s story had the luncheon attendees fully engrossed, and many had questions when he was finished. And Brian also said that he was a member of the class of ’61 because that was the year he was born! In fact, not long after we were celebrating at our 40th Reunion, he was celebrating his 40th birthday in the hospital.

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In attendance at the Luncheon were:
* Berra, Lou and Joyce with Torre Peterson as a guest
* Blesse, Jim and Bobbie
* Brown, Ed and Rina with Dick and Nini Hutchings as guests (Nini is Rina's cousin)
* Busdiecker, Roy and Janice
* Counts, Todd and Millie
* DeVries, Paul
* Fishburne, Joe and Ginna
* Ganderson, Marty
* Glass, Bob and Dawn
* Goodell, Gene
* Hardiman, Bob
* Holmberg, Bruce
* Kenny, Hank
* Kopcsak, George and Michele
* Kremer, Webb
* Magness, Tom
* McConnell, Bob
* Meissner, Ken
* Neiger, John and Barbara with Duane and Judith Heisinger and Casey and Mel Kenaston
   as guests
* Paone, Lucy
* Rauch, Frank and Joan
* Wilder, Sam
* Zimmerman, Jack and Joan