Remembering 9/11 — US Army Chaplain Msgr. Philip Hill

Inside the Pentagon, a chaplain recalls ‘days taking bodies out of the building’ — and Providence at work.

ON THE GROUND. Msgr. Philip Hill in Baghdad's Saddam Hussein Square.
ON THE GROUND. Msgr. Philip Hill in Baghdad's Saddam Hussein Square. (photo: Courtesy of Msgr. Philip Hill / Msgr. Philip Hill)

The 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been a time to remember and reflect. Where were we that day? How were we affected by what was the largest attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor? How have we changed as a nation? And how have we changed as individuals?

All this week we have been giving several Catholics who were involved in one way or another a chance to reflect on those questions. We conclude our series today.

Msgr. Philip Hill has served as an Army chaplain in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. He’s now Command Chaplain at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, he was the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army’s Chief of Chaplains Office at the Pentagon, scheduled to have an early morning meeting with three-star General Tim Maude, head personnel officer of the Army.

The general, whom Msgr. Hill refers to as “my dearest friend,” was late, and the chaplain had another meeting. He couldn’t wait.

At 9:37am, a hijacked airliner rammed into the side of the building where Gen. Maude’s office was, killing him. 

“I had just left his office a half hour before,” Msgr. Hill recalled. “Had we had that meeting on time, I would have been sitting at his desk and killed with him.”

Maude was one of 125 people killed in the Pentagon that day.

The missed meeting was not the only thing that saved Msgr. Hill. Earlier in the year, Thomas White, the Secretary of the Army and in charge of the Army side of the building, had moved the chaplains’ offices to the other side of the Pentagon. The chaplains wanted it back where it was.

“We fought with him, but he would not let us come back into our building,” Msgr. Hill said. “We didn’t get what we asked for but certainly got what we needed. If the Secretary of the Army had said ‘Yes’ to us, we would have all been killed. The plane hit right where the Chief of Chaplains office would have been. All military chaplaincy leadership would have been killed — 35 people in all.”

After ministering to the people on Sept. 11, “We spent the next number of days taking bodies out of the building,” he said. “When we found a body, a priest, minister or rabbi would pray over the body immediately, and that body was taken in almost a procession out of the building.”

Again, Divine Providence was evident. The number of dead and injured could have been much higher. Msgr. Hill said the plane hit the only side of the building which had just been renovated with steel-reinforced walls. No other side at that time would have stopped the plane so quickly.

Msgr. Hill related how after 9/11, at the first of the regular meetings held with the Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Army, “the Chief said, ‘I want a prayer here.’ That … continues to this day. Nobody was insisting we not pray at Army meetings.”

Then a master sergeant of the Army Band told Msgr. Hill how members were asked to volunteer helping to recover the bodies. All these young soldiers volunteered until the psychologists explained the gruesome things and horrors they were likely to see. One by one, they told the sergeant they couldn’t do it.

Msgr. Hill recounted: “The chaplain said, ‘You’re going to go in there and find the sons and daughters and fathers and mothers, the patriots of our country. Remember, these are not just body parts but these were temples of the Holy Spirit. You’re going to restore those patriots to their families.’ And with that kind of a refocusing they all said, ‘That we can do.’ We can take these people and patriots back to their families.’ And they enthusiastically did it for almost two weeks. To me it showed the fact nothing in what they were doing was changed, but certainly the purpose was changed, and that made all the difference.”

The effect that 9/11 had on many people — reminding them of their mortality, refocusing them on what’s important in life — was certainly true for the people Msgr. Hill has worked with: those at the Pentagon and the soldiers he’s known serving in the Middle East. 

“As young as they are, all indicate that their lives have been refocused,” he said. “They never expected the suddenness of this insight. The Pentagon and those kinds of things awakened them to a new purpose in their lives. They certainly carry what they learned on that day with them.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has posted written and video remembrances. In one video, New York Archbishop-emeritus Cardinal Edward Egan, who was heavily involved in the response to the attacks, says: “If I had to sum up 9/11, I would say it was a time in which people taught this nation and the world how to be strong and how to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others. “It was a terrible tragedy, it was a crime, but it was a magnificent manifestation of courage and willingness to sacrifice self.”

He described Pope Benedict XVI’s April 2008, meeting with victims’ families and praying at Ground Zero this way: “There was so much goodness there that the evil was, I think, not only conquered, it was smothered.”