Dick McGraw: His memories from inside the Pentagon on 9-11 ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)

Updated: Mar. 18, 2018 at 5:32 PM EDT
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You can listen to past episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast with guests including...
You can listen to past episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast with guests including Charlie Daniels, Vivian Howard and MacKenzie Gore, by clicking on the links inside this story.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Dick McGraw was in a meeting at 9:37 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when he says he felt "a bump". If he'd been inside an office in most places across the country, it wouldn't be a big deal. But, McGraw was working inside the Pentagon, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Just 30 minutes before, McGraw had been in a meeting near Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office, when he saw video of a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. Minutes later, the meeting broke up when a plane hit the second tower. McGraw and the others in the meeting knew it was trouble.

"Going downstairs to my office I said to the guys 'we're next'," McGraw remembers. "I don't know why I felt that, I just knew that we were next. So, I'm in my office about 30 minutes later, and I heard what I thought was a sonic boom, which is of course illegal over the nation's capital. So I knew it wasn't that, but that's what it sounded like. I felt a little bump. But my television didn't flicker, my computer didn't flicker, my phone didn't go off. Everything worked just the same. In a few minutes we got the alarm to evacuate the building."

That's when McGraw and the thousands of other workers inside America's defense headquarters knew terrorists had attacked.

"Everybody went outside, and there was one wedge (of the Pentagon) between where I was and where the plane hit," McGraw says. "We got outside and you could see over the top of the building there was smoke. We knew we'd been hit, but we didn't know how bad it was."

Terrorists had flown American Airlines Flight 77 into the side of the Pentagon, killing 125 people inside the building and 59 others on board the plane. McGraw, who was the press secretary for the DoD, gathered with others at a gas station across from the scene. He started digging  for details of what happened as reporters from network news stations peppered him with questions. He talks about the immediate aftermath of the attack at 5:30 of the podcast.

"When the crash happened and everybody evacuated the building, everybody took their cell phone and tried to call home to let people know 'I'm okay'," McGraw says. "The cells were jammed. The towers were slammed. So it was hours before I could get through to my wife. She wasn't upset. She had been out shopping and wasn't even aware there had been an attack until several hours later. When she got home I was able to get her."

McGraw and his wife had retired to Wilmington about ten years before 9-11. The native of West Virginia had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Washington State University with a degree in communications. McGraw had gotten his Master's Degree in the same field while enlisted, and worked in the Pentagon after serving in Vietnam. The experience of that war served McGraw well when it came time for the United States to respond to the 9-11 attacks. He had seen reporters like Peter Arnett and Dan Rather embed with troops in Vietnam, and had worked alongside them in military public relations. When networks wanted to embed during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, McGraw saw it as an opportunity to get the military's side of the story into the headlines, while military leaders disagreed.

"All of the people involved in allowing that to happen (in Vietnam) were gone, they weren't in the military anymore," McGraw says. "So when the idea came up of embedding media with troops, everybody said 'Oh, you can't do that! You're going to compromise the mission! You're going to put civilians at risk!' It was left to those of us, and there weren't many of us who were there 30 years ago to say 'We've already done this, 30 years ago!'."

McGraw says it took Defense Secretary Rumsfeld more than a month to convince military leaders that it would be a good idea to allow reporters to embed in Afghanistan. It signaled a new era in television news crews covering the action on front lines.

"This is the first time I've seen a war, as it's happening, in your living room," McGraw says.
As OEF unfolded overseas, McGraw moved from DoD's public affairs to legislative affairs. But Secretary Rumsfeld asked him to head up organizing the DoD's memorial ceremony set for one year after the 9-11 attack. That included selecting the site for the event, along with designing the memorial for the anniversary. McGraw included loved ones of those who died inside the Pentagon in the discussion and planning. In the end, the ceremony happened outside the rebuilt section of the Pentagon, with President Bush and other dignitaries in attendance.  McGraw's intent was to send a message to those who orchestrated the attack.

"The message being clear, visually as well as orally, 'yes, we were hit, but we're still here," he says. "We're back, as usual and we're coming to get you!'

Dick McGraw had reached out to Donald Rumsfeld after the latter was named Defense Secretary by President Bush in 2001. McGraw and Rumsfeld had known each other for years, meeting when both worked with G. D. Searle & Company in 1979. McGraw was the company's Vice President of Communications, and Rumsfeld was Chief Executive Officer.

"We were in line in the cafeteria together, and I was complimenting him on his trousers, and he said 'these belong to my Dad, and I still wear them'," McGraw says. We got to know each other. It was mutual respect."

McGraw oversaw public affairs and public relations when the company introduced Equal into the marketplace, which McGraw calls "one of the most successful food introductions in the economy until that time". Not long after that was the Tylenol scare where someone had tampered with Tylenol.

"We had a copycat incident with Equal, and I handled that at Rumsfeld's request because his PR guy was out of town," McGraw says. "He asked me to handle that, which I did, successfully. Ever since then we were very close."

When Rumsfeld's staff made the call in 2001 for McGraw to join the Department of Defense team, McGraw thought it would be a one-year commitment. It turned into four years, with McGraw eventually joining the Afghan Reconstruction Group and spending more than half a year living in a container-room overseas. He returned to handle the fallout from prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. prison in Iraq. Dick McGraw talks about those assignments, and retiring for a second time to Wilmington, in this behind-the-scenes podcast interview.

You can listen to the entire interview with Dick McGraw on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast: 

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