As you might expect, the annual anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are bittersweet for the survivors of the almost 3,000 people who died that day.
For many, it’s a chance to share memories with family and friends. But Debra Strickland thinks this year’s 10th anniversary might be her last for a while. She is the wife of Sgt. Maj. Larry Strickland, who graduated from Edmonds High School in 1967 and perished in the attack on the Pentagon, where he worked.
“This will kind of be a wrap-up for me,” she said over the phone from her home in Woodbridge, VA. “I’m not interested in every year having the opportunity to return to memories. It’s a challenge.”
Thursday night, Stickland attended a private event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, titled 9/11: 10 Years Later: An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection. Hosted by Christiane Amanpour, the tribute concert includes performances by Denyce Graves, Emmylou Harris, Wynton Marsalis and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. Commemorative remarks and readings will be offered by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright and other guest speakers.
On Friday, Debra will attend an observance at the Pentagon for survivors of those who died in her husband’s office, which included his boss. Larry was senior enlisted adviser to the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff of personnel.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about Larry,” said Debra. “I kind of know what people do who are in my circumstance. You manage to craft a life for yourself after you lose someone extremely important to you. But it’s just never the same. And what you kind of hope is that you live your life in a way that would make them pleased to know that you had managed through all of it, and that they can be proud of you.”
Larry Strickland, who was born in Bellingham but moved to Edmonds with his family at a young age, was 52 when he died. He was less than a month from retirement. Debra, who retired in April 2010 after 36 years in the Army, married Larry in 1995 after they’d dated for four years. “It was a short decade,” Debra says now, reflecting on their time together. It was Larry’s third marriage and her first.
On Sept. 11, 2001, while Larry had already reported for work at the Pentagon, Debra was on duty at Fort Belvoir, southeast of Washington, DC. Early that morning, Debra was running access-control exercises after a prescient memo had ordered Army installations to explore ways to secure gates when necessary. Like many Army installations, Fort Belvoir was an open installation before 9/11.
While talking to a co-worker, Debra learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center, which began at 8:46 a.m. ET. Hurrying back to her office, she soon learned that the Pentagon had been attacked as well.
Debra, pausing for a deep breath, recalled what happened next: “The lines were already jammed when we returned. Communications at the Pentagon are always busy. During the earthquake last month, a lot of the circuits were overloaded and you couldn’t get through. I didn’t know about Larry for a long time, but that afternoon around 4, I figured that if he could communicate with me, he would have already done so.”
The funeral service for Larry, who was well-known and well-liked, saw hundreds of people in attendance, said Debra. One of the attendees was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who is now head of the Veterans Administration.
“I have a videotape of it,” said Debra, “but I haven’t really watched most of it.”
In 2008, Debra was given a private viewing of the Pentagon Memorial, which features 184 benches for each of the people killed in the attack, including Larry. Debra says she will not be attending any services at the Pentagon this year.
Today, Debra is 56 and lives in Woodbridge, VA. After Larry died, one of three children from his first marriage, Julia, lived with Debra for six years. Julia now lives nearby in Virginia and has a child of her own, Brendan, who is 14 and this week entered high school. Julia will be attending the gala at the Kennedy Center tonight.
Larry’s two other grown children, Christopher and Matthew, still live in Washington state.
In addition to his memorial at the Pentagon, Larry is also memorialized on a granite plaque outside Edmonds Museum on Fifth Avenue North dedicated to local victims of war. Edmonds. Debra, who has seen Larry’s memorial in Edmonds, said she, Julia and her grandson visited Edmonds every year after her husband’s death, to reacquaint with family and Larry’s parents, Lee and Olga.
Debra says she hasn’t been to Edmonds since both Lee and Olga died in 2008, only seven months apart. She has been caring for her ill mother and had a final Army assignment in Afghanistan.
Debra is now looking to rejoin the workforce. She ideally wants to work in a program that would allow her to work with wounded veterans and recovering soldiers. Debra says she loves her country, which is why she stayed in the military for 36 years and wants to help fellow military personnel, but is troubled by the direction in which she sees the country going.
“September 11th generated a spirit of coming together and doing the best to put on a national front to the world about our resilient spirit,” she says.
“Somehow, that lasted for a couple years. Then everyday life and other demands seeped in, and it seems like our political system now is extremely fraught with individuals who believe that if others don’t believe exactly as they do, they can’t solve a particular issue. Be it the budget or other issues. That plays out in the collapse of the public’s trust in them. I think they want to point fingers so much that they forget that no one’s going to go down alone when any part of government struggles. We all own part of it.”
Debra says her work will keep her in the Washington, DC, area, but she often considers what might have been if the Sept. 11 attacks hadn’t occurred.
“Larry loved Edmonds, and I did, too. I wish that we had an opportunity to actually retire there. I had never been to Washington state before I met him, and I just love Edmonds.”