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Marine veteran recalls 9/11, hunkered down in bunker

Columbian - 11/2/2018

Nov. 02--Ask anyone where they were when they first heard about the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and chances are they'll remember.

That certainly holds true for retired Lt. Col. Robert Darling of the United States Marine Corp. But his story is a little different than most.

Darling spent the first 24 hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in an underground White House bunker with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and around 20 other military personnel as they worked to react and move forward from the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil in the nation's history.

"It changed the world. I was shoulder to shoulder as the world was changing, and I was very aware this is a big deal. We're never going to be the same," Darling said, speaking at a meet-and-greet Thursday evening at the Fort Vancouver Artillery Barracks.

Thursday's event, an informal VIP meetup, marked the first part of Darling's two-day stay in Vancouver. Friday he'll be the keynote speaker at a public luncheon at WareHouse '23, part of the annual Symbol of Freedom event that raises money for home care providers CDM Caregiving Services.

There, he'll walk through a detailed account of what took place on that first day.

"What happened moment by moment -- from 8:46 to 9:03, to 9:37 to 9:52. I go event by event," Darling said.

Speaking more broadly about the experience, he describes that day as surreal. Time seemed to simultaneously move at a crawl and fly by, he said. While he remembers feeling the momentous nature of the moment, he also recalls developing a sort of tunnel vision -- focusing on concrete tasks instead of the weight of the circumstances to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

"You kind of compartmentalize, and say, 'I'm just going to do my job.' My job is to answer this phone, and to talk to Vice President Cheney while he talks to the U.S. military, and I'm going to write it down and I'm going to do the best job I can. So your whole focus kind of comes right in to do your job," Darling said. "You don't know if it's daylight or nighttime outside. You just know that you better keep up."

Perhaps the strangest part, he said, was being sent home. He emerged from an underground White House bunker after the most intense 24 hours imaginable, got in his car, and drove home to his wife and kids. At the time, Washington, D.C., was a ghost town.

"The Pentagon is still smoking, it's got white tents and first responders everywhere, all over the place. As you drove past the Pentagon on (Interstate) 95, there's no one on the highway," Darling said. "I walk through the door, there's my wife, she's waiting at the door. And I walk in and start regurgitating everything that's happening."

In the bunker, military officials were floating the possibility that the U.S. was going to reinstate the draft. It was gutting, he said. His sons were 4 and 7 years old.

"Looking at my two kids and thinking, 'you're going to be drafted,' " he said.

This year marks the eighth annual Symbol of Freedom fundraiser, which always falls around Veterans Day. CDM Executive Director Eric Erikson said this year's event comes during a transition for the caregiving service.

As executive director since 2001 -- just before the Sept. 11 attacks -- he's seen huge changes at CDM. Most recently, they used the money from previous Symbol of Freedom fundraisers to build a new facility on Andresen Road.

CDM's 240 employees moved to the new building in June, he said. Now, with that major, concrete milestone completed, he's turning to new goals that will help serve clients and inspire donors.

A new building is an exciting, flashy goal, but knowing that funds raised this year can go directly to people most in need is also a fundraising boost, Erikson said.

"A lot of people really love knowing that the clients are going to benefit," Erikson said.

When selecting the keynote speaker, event organizer Lisa Capeloto keeps an eye out for patriotic stories that are "something interesting the community hasn't heard before," Erikson said. Some years the speaker is military, while other times the story comes from a civilian.

Darling was chosen because of his singular perspective on a day that weighs so heavily in the country's collective memory.

"We were trying to take our country back from terrorists," Darling said. "We need to be compassionate but aggressively ready to defend our country, even today."


(c)2018 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

Visit The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.) at www.columbian.com

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