On Sept. 11, 2001, a brief encounter between two chaplains stuck with them forever. Sixteen years later, they were finally reunited as part of a PBS series airing Tuesday night.
Then-Army Capt. Timothy Mallard, now a colonel, and then-Coast Guard Cmdr. Doug Waite, now a retired Navy captain, were called to the Pentagon after one of the hijacked planes crashed into the building near Washington, D.C.
The two chaplains had never met — Mallard was assigned to the Pentagon as an intern, and Waite was stationed at the former Coast Guard headquarters at Buzzard Point in D.C.
Neither one was at work when the attack unfolded, but they rushed to the scene.
Waite was fishing in Annapolis, but when he saw the New York City attacks on television, he called his boss and asked what he should do.
“He said, ‘Get your butt in here as fast as you can,’ ” Waite told Military Times.
Mallard had stayed home that day to take care of his sick children when his wife called to tell him about the planes hitting the Twin Towers.
Both chaplains were called to the Pentagon to minister to the personnel and first responders on the scene who were trying to stabilize the building before search-and-rescue operations could begin.
“In my own mind, I think of it as a combat site,” Mallard told Military Times, adding that it was an active incident site for about three weeks.
Everyone took turns working day shifts and night shifts. During one of Mallard’s shifts, someone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency team ran into the chaplain tent and told Mallard they needed him.
He went out to find a search-and-rescue team who wouldn’t go back into the building until Mallard talked to them.
“You talk about feeling overwhelmed and inadequate,” he said. “I was trying to get them to share their experiences and concerns and fears, but there was still a point where I felt like I just wasn’t connecting.”
Mallard had a Bible in his pocket and started reading through Psalm 23.
“When I got to the point in that psalm where David says walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I looked to my right at the building. There was just this black gaping hole,” he said.
He finished the psalm, and the group locked arms and prayed.
“They said, ‘OK chaplain, now we’re ready.’ ”
Mallard went back to the chaplain tent, where he said his grief overwhelmed him.
“I went in the corner and just fell down crying and weeping,” he said.
Mallard didn’t know it, but Waite was also in the tent.
“I put my arm around him, let him cry, held him,” Waite said, adding that he tried to remind Mallard that the Lord was going to take care of them and help them get through this. “He seemed to be better.”
“I remember so much of his radiant presence and kindness,” Mallard said. “He ministered to me and said a quick prayer for me, and that allowed me to go back out.”
Mallard said he wonders if he would have had the strength to keep going if Waite hadn’t been there for him in those critical moments.
The two chaplains wouldn’t see each other again for 16 years.
‘We’ll Meet Again’
The launch of the new PBS series “We’ll Meet Again,” hosted by Ann Curry, reunites people who crossed paths during pivotal moments in history.
In response to the show looking for stories, the Military Chaplains Association put out an ad for chaplains who had tales from Operation Desert Storm; Waite replied to the ad, thinking he could tell a story about an officer exchange he did with a British chaplain in Saudi Arabia.
The producers discovered Waite had written an autobiography, and when they read it, they learned about his experiences at the Pentagon after 9/11. They decided they wanted that story for their “Heroes of 9/11” episode that airs tonight on PBS (8 p.m. Eastern).
The producers tracked down Mallard and reunited the chaplains in November at the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, in a church near Ground Zero that hadn’t been destroyed.
“You’re kind of nervous and anxious and yet you want to move forward,” Mallard said of seeing Waite for the first time in 16 years. “But I saw his face, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the face I remember.’ All those years ago in the dark, just smiling at me.”
Mallard said it was a real blessing to connect with Waite and thank him.
“I never had the opportunity to do that, and that was important,” Mallard said.
Waite said he was happy to find out Mallard was assigned to the Army’s Chaplain Corps at the Pentagon.
“You just don’t know when you reach out to somebody who’s in distress the impact that’s going to have on them,” he said.
‘Shock and grief’
As chaplains, Mallard and Waite were trained to put aside their own needs and grief and think of the needs of those around them.
“It was a very difficult time to see your city, and in my case, my place of duty, attacked, and to try and help people process that spiritually and minister to them and their needs while dealing with our own sense of shock and grief,” Mallard said.
It was a surreal experience, he said, but once he got past that, he knew he had work to do.
“When you see [others] experience healing and recovery, then you know you’ve done your part,” Mallard said.
However, he said he made a “profound mistake” in the wake of 9/11.
“That mistake was while I did try to put aside my own needs, I never took time to go back and process that or reflect on that or talk with anyone about it,” he said.
Mallard pushed all of that back as the mission shifted from the Pentagon to the war downrange.
“When I deployed, I realized there was a point — particularly when I was a major and lieutenant colonel and experienced more combat trauma — that I had full-blown [post-traumatic stress],” he said. “I ended up tracing the dots back to my experience at the Pentagon.”
“To say it was traumatic doesn’t even give justice to what it was like,” said Waite, who also ministered at Ground Zero in New York.
“We were all angry,” he said. “I wanted to get rid of my cross and get a machine gun.”
Waite said he was sent to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and everything from 9/11 came back to him.
“That’s when I knew I had PTSD,” he said. “I got psychological help, antidepressants, counselors. Still do.”
That assistance has enabled him to keep his PTSD in check, he said.
Mallard said a clinical social worker helped him work through what he was dealing with, and that reliving the experience also helps.
“The way I put it when I train other chaplains is, yes, I do have PTSD,” he said. “But I control it — it doesn’t control me.”
Mallard said he hopes that if he’s willing to show that there’s a colonel and a chaplain working through post-traumatic stress and being willing to talk about it, then hopefully other troops can, too.