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Virginia soldier felt 'so proud' unfurling American flag at Pentagon after 9/11 attack

'I just remember being so proud... that would always be seen and be identified as a point of resilience, hope and care'
pentagon flag with wilkins saluting.jpg
Posted at 8:59 AM, Sep 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-12 07:20:11-04

FORT LEE, Va. -- It was a sunny September morning in 2001 when then-Sgt. William Wilkins noticed something in the distance as he was doing preventative maintenance work for the United States Army in Arlington.

"We did notice some smoke coming from an area and one of the NCOs at the time, a senior to me, staff sergeant, he literally said there was an accident on the bridge so that's what we thought it was," Wilkins said.

But soon Wilkins and his colleagues would come face to face with one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. history: a plane, hijacked by terrorists, had crashed into the nerve center of the U.S. military, the Pentagon.

Melissa Hipolit and William Wilkins
Melissa Hipolit and U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Wilkins

"We were directly in front of it, 10 feet from the site. We were literally directly in front of the site of where it went in," Wilkins said.

Wilkins, who was born in Emporia and currently works at Fort Lee in Petersburg, went to work setting up secure communications at the site.

"All I saw was a lot of rubbish and smoke and a distinct smell that I remember to this day. I will never forget that smell," Wilkins said.

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Little did the 23-year-old soldier know that he would find himself forever etched into the fabric of American history within 24 hours.

"I see it everywhere now, and it just amazes me, I'm like, that is me up there," Wilkins said.

On Sept. 12, Wilkins overheard the captain talking about the need to do something with an American flag at the crash site.

"I said do you realize that's the garrison flag? He said what do you mean what are you saying? I said you can't do this by yourself. The Garrison flag is our biggest flag. I know this because I used to do flag details. He said ok you come with me then," Wilkins said.

William Wilkins
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Wilkins

From there, the two men corralled a group of men, including several firefighters on scene, and up they went to the roof of the Pentagon.

"I said, 'Well, sir I recommend that we actually physically open up this flag on the roof, the reason for that is if you're starting to lower the flag and you lower it wrong, it will be lowered backwards, and I am sure you do not want to lower the United States flag backwards.' He said, 'You're absolutely right,'" Wilkins said.

pentagon flag with wilkins saluting.jpg

"As it was lowered and anchored and was secured us three military personnel stood up and saluted the flag. It was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had in my life," he said.

A photographer captured that iconic moment: the flag flying beside the wreckage with Wilkins and others saluting the stars and stripes.

"I just remember being so proud and just knowing I was doing something that would always be seen and be identified as a point of resilience, hope, and care," Wilkins said.

Provided to WTVR
Provided to WTVR

Someone else who was proud: Wilkins' mom.

"When I was finally able to talk to her after day two, she was overwhelmed with tears and everything, and I said mom I am ok, calm down, I said I had a job to do and I did the job," Wilkins said. "At that point she said that was the point when she felt like I became a man and she never worried about me about any other deployments after that again, never, that was her one moment."

Wilkins served four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those few moments on the roof will be forever etched in his memory.

"I will always be associated or linked to a part of history where we were all united," Wilkins said.