Most people can remember where they were when the United States was attacked Sept. 11, 2001. Benton native Tony Gatlin, who was at the Pentagon, still becomes emotional when he recalls the day.
"I survived that day for a reason," Gatlin told The Saline Courier. "It's my responsibility to keep that memory alive."
While telling his story to students at Bryant Middle School on Wednesday, he calls the day "a seminal moment in history." Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bombing at Pearl Harbor and the death of Elvis Presley, Sept. 11, 2001 caused everything to change, Gatlin said.
"After that day everything changed. Nothing was the same," he said.
Gatlin is a former U.S. Marine and Air Force officer. While in the military, he served as an antitank gunner and company armorer. After earning a bachelor's degree, Gatlin would be assigned as a nuclear missile launch officer with the U.S. Air Force. He served across the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
At the Pentagon, Gatlin "led the command element of the Air Force staff at the White House at the office of the President, Departments of State and Energy, FBI, CIA and NASA," according to Gatlin's cousin, Dane Abels, who is a teacher at Bryant Middle School.
At the time of the terrorist attacks, Gatlin was working for the secretary of the U.S. Air Force.
"It was a day just like any other day," he said.
When the first plane hit, Gatlin's boss called him into his office. Gatlin and his coworkers thought "it had to be an accident." As they watched the second plane crash, "we knew we were under attack."
At that moment, Gatlin's responsibility was to account for every airman around the world.
At approximately 9:20 a.m. he received a call from his cousin in Dallas.
"As we said goodbye, he said, 'watch your back, brother, because you never know what's coming next,'" Gatlin told the students.
About 10 minutes later, the plane struck the Pentagon.
He felt the blast hit his chest and watched as his blinds were sucked out the window.
"I went flying backward," he said. "It was hard to see, hard to breathe."
He could smell the jet fuel as it began burning his skin and getting into his mouth.
"It was an immediate awful reaction," he said. "I knew we had been hit. We were under attack."
He and other troops were able to exit through a stairwell that had not collapsed. Once they were outside, they saw the west side of the building was engulfed in flames.
He called his wife and told her, "I'll get home as soon as I can."
After about six hours, he finally traveled the 26 miles from the Pentagon back home to his family.
He told the students of drivers crashing their vehicles or abandoning vehicles on the interstate.
"It was just chaos," Gatlin said. "Many people thought the world was ending."
When he finally reached home, about 20 people from his church were waiting for him.
"The looks on their faces, I never forget it," Gatlin said.
He then went to his children's school to pick them up. At the time, his sons were "your age," he told the Bryant Middle School students.
When he arrived at the school, his military uniform, which was usually immaculate, was disheveled and dirty.
"The kids knew something was wrong," Gatlin said. "All I could think to do was hug them, hold them tight and cry a little."
Following the attacks, there was a wave of patriotism and wanting to take care of his other, he said.
The next day, he and his crew returned to the still smoldering Pentagon where he found his America flag was still standing.
"I want us always to remember that day. I want us to remember it for the right reason," Gatlin said. "A lot of people have really politicized the attack and they've turned it around and used it to scare people and used it to hurt some groups."
Along with telling of his personal experience, Gatlin gives the reasoning behind the attacks and tells students not to be scared of foreigners.
"It happened because there are small groups of people who are extremist that made this happen. They do not represent their religion. They do not represent their culture," Gatlin said. "I do not want you to fear another person because of their religion. This is not what this is about … Let's be citizens of the world."