Peoria Journal Star

September 11, 2006

'With every tragedy, there's room to heal'

Manual High School graduate says she will never forget images she saw at the Pentagon

By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the Pentagon was evacuated after the terrorist attack in 2001, Army Sgt. 1st Class Holli Crawford ran outside, scooping up two toddlers from the child care center as she went.

The Peoria native remembers a lot of screaming and crying as word spread that there may be a second attack - even while Pentagon workers stared at the growing black cloud over their building.

But the image that remains seared in her mind five years later is the pile of white body bags when she returned to work on Sept. 12. They were laid out in the Pentagon courtyard, where employees usually enjoyed their lunch.

"I'll never forget that experience at all," said Crawford, 38, a 1986 graduate of Manual High School in Peoria.

However, she is intent on making something good come out of it. For her, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks is "a stepping stone of healing."

"With every tragedy, there's room to heal," Crawford said. "We can take it, and we can heal. We don't want to focus on what happened. I want to focus on the positive.

"We should be grateful for the people who are still here. We should be grateful for what we still have."

At the Pentagon, she was the executive assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense. As "war planners," Crawford and her co-workers worked around the clock in the weeks after the attack.

In 2003, she was selected for a prestigious position with the White House Communications Agency, part of a traveling team that ensures communications support for first lady Laura Bush. She's been traveling a couple of weeks every three months or so but will be traveling more extensively as the campaign season heats up.

"Wherever you see them on television, we're there behind the scenes," Crawford said of her new job, which she said leaves "no room for error."

She still sees her former Pentagon co-workers.

"We still come together and talk," she said.

To this day, Crawford's 11-year-old daughter doesn't like her mom to go to the Pentagon. A classmate's mother was killed at the Pentagon that day, and it hit her hard.

"I was in the Pentagon a couple of months ago, and she doesn't feel good about me taking classes there even now," Crawford said.

Crawford said she has neither the time nor the urge to watch any of the recently released movies depicting the terrorist attacks.

"I don't desire to relive that moment. I'm all about moving on and healing. If you keep going back, you can't heal," she said.

On the fifth anniversary of the attack, Crawford intends to have lunch with her former colleagues at the Pentagon - if she's not traveling for work.

She plans to retire from the military in two years or so, after she completes her master's degree in public administration. She hopes to get a job with the government, maybe back at the Pentagon.

"I've been in the military since I was 18 years old, so that's what I know," she said.

Crawford, who was a deeply religious woman before the terrorist attacks, recently began a Bible study at work. She believes that God put her at the Pentagon at that time for a reason and that the experience has changed her.

"I look at people differently now," she said. "I don't take things for granted."

"We can't forget, but we can learn from it and understand what happened and do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn't happen again."


Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or