Captain (ret) JTodd Ross and his wife Traci live on Penn National Golf Course during the summer months. It is a retirement community, not too far from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with more than 1200 members. Each year the community holds an annual remembrance on Memorial Day morning that includes music, prayers, stories, etc. This year, JTodd was asked to be the keynote speaker because members of the community had heard he “was in the Navy.”
The following are his heartfelt and very powerful remarks. JTodd and the Tolbert family have graciously agreed to allow us to share these with all NIP members.
They serve as a poignant reminder of why we celebrate Memorial Day each year.
Good morning. Many of you don’t know me—I’m not a very good golfer. But my name is Todd Ross. My wife Traci and I live on Founders 6 between the Greys and the Light Greens, and we have a German Shepherd named Bear.
I’ve been a part of the Nation’s Intelligence Community since 1985, and I still actively consult for the Department of Defense in the Nation’s ongoing struggles against terrorist regimes and those that would do us harm.
As Steve mentioned, Memorial Day has its roots in the 1860s to honor those fallen in the Nation’s wars. I certainly wasn’t around for the Civil War, the two World Wars, or the Korean War. I was too young to appreciate the Vietnam War, so to me, for the first forty years of my life, Memorial Day was a day that honored many hundreds of thousands of people that I never knew.
But it became very personal to me on September 11th, almost 22 years ago. I was an active-duty intelligence officer then as a commander in the U.S. Navy. I worked on the 5th Floor of the Pentagon in Corridor 6. It was routine for Cable News programming to be on, and just like many of you, the first fire in World Trade Center North was very curious—unexplainable, almost, for as clear as the weather was. But my confusion did not last long as I watched United Airlines Flight 175 on live television impact World Trade Center South between Floors 77 and 85. Clearly not an accident.
As I returned to my desk, I mentioned to a colleague that I hoped the Pentagon had deployed air defense to the rooftop. Thirty-four minutes after that impact on the South Tower, I got to feel our own explosion. While I didn’t realize the cause until hours later, American Airlines Flight 77 impacted Corridor 4 at a ground speed of 535 miles per hour, approximately 300 yards away. For those of you who have never been to the Pentagon, each of the five sides is 330 yards in length, so nearly 1,000 feet. Right behind us, Founders 12 plays 330 yards from the Grey tee boxes to the center of the green.
I evacuated the building to the south, and I could see the large black smoke plume toward Arlington Cemetery; and I sensed immediately that I would soon learn of casualties that I knew personally.
As it turns out, I lost one of my commissioning classmates at Aviation Officer Candidate School and lost one of my best friends and shipmates from a previous deployment on USS Constellation.
It took me awhile to get home that day because I could not get to where my car was parked. I lived in Alexandria, Virginia at the time, and it was three o’clock before I arrived. The phone rang, and Naval Intelligence was trying to account for everyone because eight personnel were still considered missing. One of the missing was identified as my close friend, Lieutenant Commander Otis Vincent Tolbert. We all knew him as Vince…African American, a former college football player at Fresno State, one of the strongest men I’ve ever known. Role model husband, father, son, brother, officer, and leader.
I immediately called his wife Shari in Lorton, Virginia. She told me she had heard nothing and that she was “just waiting for the black sedan to pull up with the chaplain.” Military protocol calls for face-to-face notification with a chaplain and an appointed Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) who lines up immediately payable benefits in the case of death. I hung up and told Shari I would learn all that I could.
Later that evening, my phone rang again. It was the two-star admiral in charge of Naval Intelligence. He said, “JTodd, we’re sending a CACO and chaplain to the Tolbert residence, and I want you to go with them.” For every victim, the admiral assigned somebody that the family knew well to accompany those delivering life-changing and very tragic news. So, when Shari’s black sedan arrived, I was in it.
At 10:30 PM, with the chaplain and the CACO, we met Shari, her closest friend, and the three Tolbert children— a 10-year-old daughter, a six-year-old daughter with special needs, and a barely one-year old son.
I spent the next nine weeks of my life supporting the Tolbert family. I escorted Vince’s remains from Dover Air Force Base, I spoke at Arlington Cemetery, I spoke in Fresno, California, and got to coordinate a two-ship F/A-18 high-speed pass over his high school. ESPN came to my living room and interviewed me for one of their “Outside the Lines” broadcasts.
Why did I share that with you this morning? Well, I had the honor, albeit based in tragedy, to do all that I could to support ONE victim and his family, but it made me realize the totality of loss suffered by many hundreds of thousands who we honor today, and the millions left behind.
One hundred and twenty-five people died at the Pentagon, plus 59 airline crew and passengers. In total, there were nearly 3,000 deaths from the 9/11 attacks. In the Nation’s response to 9/11 over the last twenty-plus years, we’ve lost nearly 7,000 military members in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every one of them has a story like I shared with you this morning. And if you think 7,000 sounds high, in that same period, we’ve lost 30,000 military members to suicide, many sourced from conflict-driven Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They have family members, too.
I’ll close with some good news, though. Shari and I are still connected. That oldest daughter…she is in the fight against evildoers. And that one-year-old son? He’ll soon join the fight as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force learning how to fly jets. He graduated from the Air Force Academy last year. I can’t tell you how proud his father would be of all three children.
And me…last Wednesday, I was on MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida. The U.S. Central Command is headquartered there, with a four-star Army officer overseeing the area of responsibility that includes all the traditional hot spots: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, among many others. The intelligence enterprise that supports him is next door in a separate, equally sized building, and it is called the Lieutenant Commander Otis Vincent Tolbert Joint Intelligence Operations Center. The locals in Tampa simply call it “The Vince.”
And I was there as a consultant in support of a capability that allows that four-star general to watch a live global feed from airborne sensors that persistently surveil those who would do us harm, enabling their unwarned demise when warranted.
As I visited the front office, dozens of pictures of Vince and his family still line the halls. I sent Shari a text and told her the family was still featured prominently. She told me she’d like to visit this fall, and I’m confident the U.S. Central Command leadership would warmly welcome her.
Our struggle against terror is not over, and we owe those fallen in fighting it—and their families left behind—our gratitude, remembrance, and enduring prayers today. Memorial Day matters. Thank You.