For former Pentagon clinic chief, sights and smells of 9/11 terrorist attack burned into his mind
Dr. James Geiling (back to camera, in the blue vest), at the time an Army colonel in charge of the Pentagon's DiLorenzo Tricare Health Clinic, directs the medical response after the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
ON Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. James Geiling stood at the entrance to a bridge, just across the river from the Pentagon, feeling helpless as he watched thick smoke bellow from the ugly gash in the side of the iconic building.
“I pulled out every identification I had, but the police officer there said, ‘You’re not crossing my bridge, doc,’” said the former Army colonel and commander of the Pentagon’s DiLorenzo TRICARE Health Clinic. “That was really a tough moment for me, to stand there, my people over there, and I’m stuck on the other side.”
Geiling had made the trip from the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he had been doing rounds in the intensive care unit. Despite not being able to get to the Pentagon immediately, Geiling knew he had the right people with the right training there to care for casualties. A few hours later, he finally walked into the building, the air filled with the acrid smell of smoke. The injured had been taken to the Pentagon’s center courtyard and another area just outside of the building. At those spots, Geiling cared for patients and directed the doctors, nurses and medics treating the burns and broken bones of the victims of the terrorist attack. “It was getting to be 5 or 6 o’clock at night, and we realized there were things still happening. So I sent a third of the people home, because I knew I would need them fresh in the morning,” he said.
Geiling also knew the world had changed. And he credits his years of military medical training for helping him be ready for that change. A graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), Geiling said the training there paid off when faced with the tragedy of the Pentagon terrorist attack.
“In some ways, you spend your whole life preparing to do this,” he said. “And then it’s time to put your game face on. I can’t speak highly enough of the role USU played and continues to play for me in not just shaping medical officers, but military medical officers. I’m a commander, not just a doctor.”
Geiling had arrived at the Pentagon about a year earlier and at that time recognized they would need help from local first responders in case something ever happened. His years of working in military medicine gave him the diplomatic skills that helped him establish relationships with local emergency responders in the neighborhoods surrounding the Pentagon. Those relationships proved to be very valuable on 9/11.
“Shortly after I got to the Pentagon on 9/11, I met with the Arlington, Virginia, emergency responders. Because we’d already talked, that helped our military medical people collaborate with our civilian counterparts,” said Geiling.
Geiling still chokes up when he remembers how his son, in junior high school at the time, had to stand in line for hours just to be able to call his mom to make sure dad was OK, because he knew he was somewhere near the Pentagon when the plane struck. “9/11 has never left my memory.” He still maintains a strong tie to military medicine, currently serving as the chief of medicine for the Department of Veterans Affairs White River Junction VA Medical Center in Vermont. In addition, Geiling teaches at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire, passing along his years of knowledge in emergency medicine to the next generation of doctors.
Fifteen years after that fateful day, Geiling said it’s still hard to think about the events of 9/11. The acrid smell of smoke, the sights and sounds of the destruction are burned into his mind, as is the unbreakable bond he shares with his fellow doctors, nurses and medics who were at the Pentagon the day the world changed. It’s something he’ll never forget.
“It was a defining moment of my military career; I’m proud and humbled by it,” said Geiling. “I had a great team that did superstar things when [it] hit the fan for them and our country. As tragic as the events were, I’m actually proud and grateful to have had the experience.”