By Paul Taylor
Pentagon Force Protection Agency
WASHINGTON, April 26, 2011 – For Zelma Owens -- then a uniformed officer with the Defense Protective Service -- the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon set in motion a career path that has led to her current position as an antiterrorism officer with the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.
“It was a loud boom, and the building shook,” she recalled. “I thought somebody had pushed one of those big safes and knocked it over, and I thought ‘Why would somebody do that?’ Then everybody started coming out of their offices screaming, ‘We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit!’”
For Owens, the attack began a long series of days with little rest as she helped to secure the site, establish a force protection perimeter and manage the massive influx of investigators, rescuers and others involved with the recovery effort.
Today, Owens still works for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, but she has traded in her uniform for civilian attire, serving in the agency’s antiterrorism and force protection directorate, working with managers of Defense Department-leased facilities in the national capital region.
“We advise them on their antiterrorism plans,” she explained. “That means helping them conduct vulnerability assessments, threat assessments and criticality assessments. For me, it’s actually helping people to go through the process of determining how they are going to respond to certain types of emergencies. That’s what I like about the job.”
In addition to developing and maintaining antiterrorism and force protection plans for more than 20 leased facilities, Owens also represents her directorate for table-top exercises with the agency’s training directorate.
“Zelma is one of my budding superstars,” said Jim Pelkofski, antiterrorism and force protection director. “The more I get to know her and the more I learn her talents, the more I lean on her, and the more tasks and responsibilities I push her way.
“I’ve very much placed her in an operational role within the organization, because I see that kind of talent in her,” he added. “I really think highly of her. She has a great attitude. She has a great level of knowledge.”
Owens began gathering that knowledge with the Pentagon police in 1997. Before 9/11, she was a liaison from the police to the antiterrorism and force protection directorate.
“That was my first experience with [the directorate], and my interest grew,” she said, especially in 9/11’s immediate aftermath.
“We had to identify guard positions, define how many officers were going to work each post, what their hours would be, and we had to do it quickly,” she said. “That was my first experience in helping to develop mitigation measures for an [antiterrorism] plan.”
She earned two promotions in the Pentagon police department, attaining the rank of lieutenant and becoming responsible for “random antiterrorism measures” -- security measures that routinely change their look and type to make it difficult for terrorists to predict challenges they would face in an attack -– on the Pentagon reservation. She was hired into her current position in 2006.
Owens said it’s easy to understand why she’s passionate about her job.
“Saving lives,” she said. “I’m in the business of saving lives.”