London native reflects on being in the Pentagon when plane struck

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Pete Cato was at the Pentagon when it was hit by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, he is back at the Pentagon.

As most Americans recall the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, London native Robert "Pete" Cato has his own recollections of the day in which he was inside the Pentagon when the building was hit by a terrorist plane.

Cato, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp, had only been stationed in the Pentagon for one week when the plane struck the military headquarters, damaging the building and requiring immediate evacuation.

"I had just come back from a 3-year deployment to Japan. I'd been at the Pentagon just long enough to find the bathrooms and know where my car was parked," he said. "The Pentagon is a huge building, almost like a city in itself."

Cato said the Pentagon staff was aware that the country was under attack after the second plane hit the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the country went on high alert. But it was unexpected when the third plane struck the Pentagon.

"I heard a loud explosion, the building shook like there had been an earthquake and the roof buckled down," he said. "I will never forget it. I can still smell the diesel fuel and smoke."

Ironically, Cato was in the NI Terrorism office at the time of the crash and had to evacuate the building. He said the staff was calm and organized during that process, stating they were all caught up "in the enormity of the moment." But while some were exiting the building, others were going back inside to assist anyone who had been injured or was trapped inside.

"I will always remember the absolute bravery of so many people that occurred after the attacks," he said. "The priest who was at the World Trade Center, giving the last rites to the people inside the building, walking in there knowing that he would never come out. The firefighters and police. They showed their absolute love for people - to go and lay down their life for someone they never met."

"Everyone needs to realize how good and blessed you can be," he continued. "I think about the Army Colonel who was in Vietnam in 1965 and was modeled for a character in 'We Were Soldiers Once and Young.' He was there when the World Trade Center was bombed in the 1990s. He got everybody in his business out and went back in, never to come out again," he said. "He was a hero."

Cato said he never considered leaving the military after that day - instead, making him realize the full scope of what he wanted to do. Now, 20 years later, he is stationed back at the Pentagon in the National War Plans Division as he recalls the impact that September 11, 2001 made on his own life.

"I'd played around with the idea of a career in the military. I could have come back home and worked in my dad's law office (the late Robert "Bob" Cato). But that day made me realize that I was not only needed but gave me the opportunity to give back to those who sacrificed FOR ME that day."

He said his service in the military had allowed him to do things and go places he would never have experienced otherwise.

"I've been to 33 countries - Iraq, Africa and others," he said. "My favorite was being in Israel on Christmas Day. I went to Nazareth on Christmas Eve and went to the church where they have the anointed stone where Jesus was buried. There was a woman there who was crying and laid on the stone with a crucifix, asking for healing. That was very moving."

Now approaching his 27th year, Cato is preparing to retire soon with the rank of Lt. Colonel and will end his military career stationed at the Pentagon - 20 years after he was inside when the attack took place. Since he is still in the military, Cato cannot comment on the politics and policies of today's situation in Afghanistan, but he did say that terrorist groups are always monitored and that the U.S. government is doing all they can to ensure the safety of their citizens.

He said the patriotism that abounded following the September 11 attacks is something that should be in the hearts of every American, every day.

"It's called Freedom Day (i.e., Patriot Day) for a reason - September 11 should be a celebration of that kind of sacrifice. You'd like to say that is every day," he said. "Our young people today need heroes and there were plenty that day and every day."

His advice to the younger generation is simple: Strive to be all you can be. With two children of his own who are in the 12th and 6th grades, he emphasizes the importance of passing along the history of the United States and the importance of celebrating and recognizing the freedoms we take for granted.

"We need to teach about 9-11 and Pearl Harbor so they know the sacrifices that have been made. They need to focus on their education and use their life experiences to make it better for the generations after you," he said. "Strive to leave a legacy you would be proud of."

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