By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 12, 2008 - The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jim Laychak sat in his Alexandria, Va., home watching televised coverage of the attacks on the World Trade towers. Then he heard his windows shake. "I said to myself, 'I bet that's the Pentagon,'" he recalled in an interview today.
Moments later, a news reporter confirmed Laychak's fears: The Defense Department headquarters -- where Laychak's father, uncle and two brothers worked -- had been hit.
When terrorist hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon that day, Laychak lost his younger brother, David. Since then, Laychak has been committed to ensuring the world does not forget his brother or the other 183 people who died in the attack -- 59 passengers and crewmembers aboard the aircraft and 125 servicemembers and civilian workers.
His vision has culminated in the Pentagon Memorial, a two-acre site near the point of impact that will contain 184 illuminated benches and lighted reflecting pools when construction wraps up this August ahead of the Sept. 11, 2008, dedication.
In a ceremony on the memorial grounds today, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England joined Laychak in helping plant one of the dozens of paperbark maple trees that will shade the cantilever benches, each of which is engraved with a victim's name.
Using a pair of silver shovels that shone bright against the sun, England and Laychak heaped dirt around the base of a paperbark today, two years after the memorial's groundbreaking.
"This is a memorial for the families, it's a memorial for everyone here at the Pentagon, and it's a memorial for everyone in America, because this will be the first memorial to really remember those that were killed on 9/11," England said.
"Every single person we lost -- here at the Pentagon especially -- was an individual, a lot of them serving their country right here, and on the airplane, people who were going about the business of freedom everyday, just traveling," he added.
Laychak, who serves as president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, said the initial vision for the project was to build a place where families could gain peace and solace.
"I think the idea of the trees and the water kind of creates that special place for people to come ... and remember what happened that day and think about how it's changed our lives and what we're doing differently going forward," he said.
As he described the day that inspired the memorial, Laychak became choked up. "It's a day that obviously I'll never forget and one that's still with me," he said after regaining his composure. "It's tough to think about when you think about it. But we have this place now."
The branches of the tree the two men planted today reaches over a bench dedicated to Navy Electronics Technician First Class Ronald J. Hemenway.
"His parents actually made a visit here for the first time over this past Memorial Day," said Jean Barnak, the Pentagon Memorial project manager. "They came to see the park and see their son's memorial in it."
Before returning to their home in Kansas, Hemenway's family revealed to memorial staff that their son, a 37-year-old Navy Command Center staffer at the time of the attack, was one of five victims whose remains were never found.
"As a result, this place is as significant and meaningful as it is to all of the families," Barnak said, "and I think they see it as this sort of tangible place they where they can come."