As told to her friends Verlie McAlister Edwards and Leanne Kinsey Ivey
Editor’s note: Twenty years after terrorists flew American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon, Mel Birdwell, the wife of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian Birdwell, shares her remembrances of the day and the months that followed. The nose of that plane landed less than 20 yards from where Col. Birdwell stood. To learn more about the Birdwells, read their book Refined by Fire: A Family’s Triumph of Love and Faith.
September 11, 2001 began like any other day. Lt. Col. Brian Bridwell said goodbye to Mel, his wife of 14 years, and headed to the Pentagon. Mel started her day with her usual run and getting their 12-year-old son, Matt, ready for day two of homeschooling.
Mel knew what was happening in New York City, but had turned the TV off because she and Matt had schoolwork to complete. They were excited to successfully complete a science experiment and left it out for Brian to see when he came home. He didn’t come home that day.
A neighbor called and told her the Pentagon had been hit. Mel and Matt turned on the TV. She was looking at the section of the Pentagon where Brian’s office was located. She recognized the helipad outside his window. Matt didn’t know his dad’s office was there because he had changed office locations. Matt went for a walk and punched the wall as he walked out.
While Matt was outside, the damaged section of the Pentagon collapsed. Mel knew if Brian was there, he would not survive. She remembers sliding from the couch to the floor and screaming “Oh, please God, don’t let him have been in his office.” (Col. Birdwell was not in his office when the plane hit. He was exiting the men’s restroom and was engulfed with jet engine fuel and flames.)
Mel then started calling family – Brian’s brother … his mother … her sister. When she got to her sister, she lost it. Her phone rang and a man asked if she was Mel Birdwell. He explained that his wife worked at the Pentagon and saw Col. Birdwell in triage. She had talked to him and prayed with him. Brian had given her Mel’s phone number. Col. Birdwell was alive but in very serious condition and on his way to Georgetown University Hospital.
After calling the hospital, she was told to get there as quickly as possible. Matt wanted to go with her, but she told him he needed to stay with the neighbor. She didn’t know what to expect and wanted to protect Matt.
She went to the home of the neighbor that told her about the Pentagon thinking if her Army husband was at home, he would take her to the Georgetown Hospital. She had no idea where the hospital was located. He wasn’t home.
As she left the house, Mel saw a uniformed soldier, explained what had happened, and asked him to take her to the hospital. He said yes, they would figure out how to get to the hospital. He suggested that she should put on some shoes. A drive that would normally take 30 minutes took them two hours. When they got to the Key Bridge leading into Washington, D.C., traffic was halted. Mel exited the car and began running across the bridge seeing black smoke over Crystal City (where the Pentagon is located). She flagged down a D.C. police car and asked them to take her to the hospital.
Upon arrival at the Georgetown Hospital, she was met by no fewer than 25 medical personnel. Doctors explained that a CAT scan had been done and Col. Birdwell had no broken bones, but extensive burns. She was taken into a sterile room with instructions that she could only stay for seconds, couldn’t touch him or go near him. The first thing that hit her senses was the overwhelming smell of jet fuel. When the nurse in the room would not make eye contact, she knew it was not good.
A Catholic priest asked if she needed anything and she said yes, a Bible. She read and prayed. The attending physician told her they had received permission from the FAA to medevac Brian to Washington Hospital Center’s burn unit. Mel called Matt and told him his dad was alive, but really bad and she didn’t think he should see him. Matt later told her he sat outside all afternoon and watched the F-16 jets fly over Washington, D.C.
As Georgetown Hospital security was transporting Mel to Washington Hospital Center, they were stopped numerous times by military with rocket launchers wanting to know why they were on the streets. “The streets were empty. It was like Marshall Law,” Mel remembered.
When she entered the Washington Hospital Center Emergency Room the ER staff tried to tell her that no one was arriving by helicopter – airspace was closed. After many arguments, Mel strongly convinced them that yes, her husband would be arriving by helicopter and she was waiting to see him land. A social worker arrived, asked if she was Mrs. Birdwell and tried to take her upstairs. Mel refused to leave. She saw the helicopter safely land before going to ICU.
About three hours after arriving at Washington Hospital Center, a different social worker found Mel. She had been looking for Mel and asked her to stop avoiding her. She presented a stack of papers from Walter Reed Medical Center. It had Eeyore on the front of it and it was about disability. Mel began reading and it said ‘medical retirement…service member’s death is eminent within 72 hours.’
“I asked her how do they know this?” She replied it’s based on … I interrupted and asked if they talked to his doctors… she says no. I told her it’s based on BS because he’s going to live!”
The social worker agreed to get his doctor so they could have a discussion. The doctor said Col. Birdwell had a 65/35, maybe a 70/30 chance to live, but he didn’t think Col. Birdwell would die. (She later found out he was lying.)
“I told the social worker to tell the Army that she was not going to medically retire her husband,” Mel said. When Brian woke up, she was not going to tell him he was no longer in the Army. He loved the Army.
From that point on, Mel realized that she was her husband’s only advocate and began that unfamiliar role throughout his 39 surgeries in 92 days.
On September 13, Mel received a phone call from a Washington, D.C. area code. It was the Secret Service. President George W. Bush would like permission to visit.
First Lady Laura Bush entered the hospital room first. Col. Birdwell could not speak, but he could mouth words. She asked general questions – where are your from, do you have children, etc.? He responded, Texas and she said, “We are from Midland! Col. Birdwell, I’ve brought someone to see you.” President Bush walked in. Brian tried to salute but was unable to raise his arm all the way up. President Bush held a salute to Brian with tears in his eyes. President Bush told him, “You are a hero. This is not going to go unanswered.”
Four days later on September 17, the Washington Redskins football team asks permission to visit and meet Matt. The ICU nurse told Mel that Brian was having a good day and it would be a good time for Matt to see him. Matt wanted to see his dad. The Redskins were already in the room when Matt entered, but to Brian no one else was there. He and Matt locked eyes and Brian told his son he loved him. Matt told his dad he loved him. There were no dry eyes in the room.
Throughout this unimaginable ordeal that stretched from months to years, Mel found a voice that enabled her to stand up to the Army, the medical staff and anyone she felt was not putting her husband’s best interest first.
How did she cope? She learned to depend on the Lord, not people. “The biggest lesson I learned is God is sovereign. We are not alone,” she said. Mel also journaled every day and prayed constantly. “I felt like I was sitting in the Lord’s lap and he was walking me through it. I also learned the true meaning of our marriage vows.”
Six months and one day after the attack, Mel Birdwell drove her husband, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, to the Pentagon to return to work. He continued his service to our country and retired at 20 years, one month and 19 days. They remained in Washington, D.C. for three more years while he continued with additional surgeries and physical therapy.
Today, the Birdwells live in Granbury, Texas where they are active members of their community. Brian Birdwell is a Texas State Senator and Mel Birdwell continues to advocate for him and her community.
Mel Birdwell is the wife of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian Birdwell, a survivor of the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. She remained by his side throughout his recovery from 30-plus operations and months of skin grafts, physical therapy and recovery.
After completing 20 years in the U.S. Army, Brian and Mel moved to Lake Granbury, a short drive from his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Mel was originally from Davis, Oklahoma, but moving to Texas was required when she accepted his proposal of marriage. He told her “that’s a deal breaker!” They have been married 34 years and have one son and two grandchildren.
Today, Brian continues to serve – this time, for the State of Texas. In 2010 he was elected to represent District 22 in the Texas State Senate and this year was elected by his peers to serve as President pro tempore.
Mel is an active member of the Senate Ladies and served as President of that organization from May 2017 to May 2019. She is an active member of her community.