Former Lt. Col. Mark Schoenrock was an active duty Army officer for 28 years; a decade as a logistics officer in several combat units, then a contracting officer, then the inspector general for the Colorado National Guard. From 1991-98 he was an executive officer in the office of one of President Bill Clinton's appointees in Washington, then the Army's acquisition liaison to Congress for two years. Retired from the active duty Army, he now serves as an Army civilian, chief of contracting for the CONG, and is approaching 34 years of federal service.
In August 2011, Schoenrock sat down for an impromptu interview about the CONG's latest construction project, a new facility for the High-Altitude Army National Guard Training Site (HAATS) in Gypsum, Colo.
The result of that meeting was a stunning reminder of human mortality – and a humble lesson in the value of intuition and faith.
A true survivor of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, this is his story, in his words.
We (14 of us) had all flown to Washington the day before (Sept. 10, 2001), and they all had business elsewhere. My business was in the Pentagon that morning. I was the state inspector general for Colorado at the time.
I had been an executive officer in the assistant secretary of the Army's office and helped to plan the renovation of the first wedge of the Pentagon renovation, and they had just completed that first wedge. As that was where I used to work, I wanted to walk out to the E Ring and see what it looked like.
My meeting was actually over between the fifth and sixth corridor on the E-Ring, so I was walking down the fourth corridor and I got out into the C ring and – you know how the Pentagon is, A, B, C, D – E-Ring is the outside ring. I got to the C-Ring and (at approximately 9:35 a.m. EST) I just had this very intense prompting not to go any farther down to the E-ring. Instead, I turned right.
At 9:37 a.m. EST, terrorists crashed a Boeing 757 – American Airlines flight 77 – into the Pentagon.
Because I turned right instead of going straight, that's why I'm still here today. … Because I'm a pretty fast walker, I was about a football field away from it when it hit. … Had I gone straight, I'd have been right at the point of impact. … That's why I lost seven friends, because it hit right where I used to work – and there's little chance I would have survived it.
Everything that happened that morning was so intense. It hits right there (pointing to his gut). You don't have yourself mentally prepared for something like that occurring in that place and that time. You know, if you're in a combat unit, you get yourself mentally prepared for these kinds of things happening. … That morning we were in the Pentagon in Washington D.C., a beautiful September morning. …
That was obviously an intensely personal moment that morning. … For we who were there … obviously it's something you never forget. Right after it happened, and for a few years after, I was having pretty bad nightmares. Obviously the things I saw that morning – experienced – it was horrible. I have all that pretty well out of my mind now. It's the craziest thing. I'll still wake up sometimes – it happened last week – I'll still wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and I can smell that jet fuel burning.
It will be forever with me – that morning. I'm just glad that I survived it.
Now every time I go to Washington, if I have any time at all, I go to Arlington; they have a memorial there for the people who lost their lives that morning. … The last time that I was there, I actually got myself to walk the fourth corridor. I haven't been able to do that for all these years. I have not been able to get myself to walk back down that corridor. The last time I walked that was that morning of 9/11. (This time) I walked back down that corridor. And at the end of the corridor on the E-Ring there's a plaque that has all the names of the people who lost their lives that day. My friends' names are on there – and I came that close to my name being on that plaque.
(I) can't put it into words. When it happened, it just cut so deep. It will be forever with me. …
Our guys who've been to Iraq and Afghanistan have had intense experiences there, but I would say, the difference is that when you're in that environment, you've gotten yourself somewhat mentally prepared for those kinds of things happening. That morning, we didn't. … It was just a regular environment, and then all hell on earth broke loose. Just like that. I think that's the difference. You just don't have yourself prepared for it, that's why it cut so deep.
You know, I've often wondered why I survived it and (my friends) didn't. And I've talked to other people who've been in combat and (it's the) same thing, you know, "Why did I survive it and my buddy right next to me didn't?" I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that. …
(For me) I think this is it. I wasn't taken that morning because God had other things in mind for me, and I'm still making an important contribution to the defense and the security of our country as part of the Army team. I'm very proud of that.
There is an intense sense of pride; contribution. When this is done, that new (HAATS) facility is going to be there. I don't care how old I get, I can always drive by here and I can say, "I was the contracting officer for that project. I'm the person who pulled it all together and made that happen." There will always be an intense sense of pride and gratification that comes from that. And that facility will still be there, long after I'm gone.
You'll notice that I have my old Army cap, and I got a HAATS cap this morning, which I'm going to wear very proudly.
So, I'm still doing this because of them, and because of that morning. I'm still part of the effort to defeat what happened that morning, so that's part of it, too. I can't really imagine doing anything else.