At the age of 24, Alex Ballestreros says he had a calling to enlist in the military. He joined the United States Navy where he served at sea in Communications. Ever since that time, Alex says the flag took on a new meaning for him. This deep meaning came after he saw the flag draped over the coffin of a fallen comrade… a symbol of loss, sacrifice, and love. He later became Petty Officer at the Pentagon where he provided critical IT support to the Navy Command Center in his role as Navy Database Administrator. During his time in the Navy, he was honored with the title of Sailor of the Year.
On September 11, 2001, Alex was working at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Command Center. One hundred and eighty four military personnel and civilians were killed that day. Alex knew 42 of them. They were close friends and colleagues that he considered his work family. To honor the souls lost, Alex designed a granite memorial that was chosen to be installed at the Pentagon on the one year remembrance of 9/11. The plaque has 42 stars etched to honor and remember the 42 lives taken too soon. Their names are over a map of the United States with the title, ‘Fallen But Not Forgotten’ written across the top.
Alex later moved to California, which is where he first encountered the National 9/11 Flag during the Flag stitching ceremony at the USS Midway Museum. In my interview with Alex, he shares more about his experience on 9/11, what brought him to stitch the National 9/11 Flag, what that experience means to him and what he hopes it will mean to others.
Amanda: Before we discuss your connection to the National 9/11 Flag and its personal meaning to you, I think it’s important for readers to understand what you experienced on September 11, 2001. Could you please share with us your story from that day?
Alex: “I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 working as Navy Petty Officer First Class (PO1) for the Navy Command Center-the heart of Navy Communications. I was in the middle of the food court with a friend of mine, having our normal day talking about what we were doing for the weekend. As we were there, we started seeing people running and panicking. We heard a brief conversation that someone said a plane crashed into the towers. I looked at my friend, who also worked at the Command Center, and we ran back into the office where the monitors were capturing everything. That’s when I saw it on the news. Our captain was bringing us up to date. Everyone in the office agreed that we were under attack. My captain ordered me to follow up on the meeting we were scheduled to have that day. Before I left, I got together with my team and one team member, Judy Jones, who was like a mom to me, was panicking. I told her ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be back. I promise you, everything is going to be okay’ and headed to the meeting. As soon as I walked out of the second floor of the Pentagon, there was a rumbling sound, and I got a glimpse of the tail end of the plane. Next thing it’s the impact. I had this feeling that something was wrong, and I had to get back in. As I turned around, the Pentagon shut down. The whole building was locked down, and there was no way we could get in. I jumped off the second floor and still had that urge that I needed to get back in but as I came around the curve the second explosion from the jet fuel threw me back. One of the military police helped me up and told me to get away from the building because there is another plane coming. That’s when we knew we were definitely under attack. The rest of the day, whoever survived met up in a different location to maintain productivity. Later, I found out our office, the Command Center, took a direct hit. I lost 42 friends; 16 of my teammates that supported me. In the aftermath of 9/11, myself and the two other enlisted colleagues who worked with me and survived, spent months going to funerals-42 funerals. I was filled with anger and sadness. Everyone knew me as a tough guy those following months. I never cried. I was constantly angry but I was getting things done. There was no time to cry or mourn. You had to keep going. The rest of the people that were alive looked up to me so I felt if I showed any weakness, they would lose trust in what’s going on.”
Amanda: Thank you for sharing your story from that day, Alex. I can’t even imagine what that was like and the road to healing that came after. I recently read a quote that said, ‘grief and resilience live together’ and feel this is so true. Your healing and grieving had to be tucked away so that you could move forward and be strong for those around you. Part of moving forward for you was helping to memorialize those that died that day. I read you designed a memorial that is installed at the Pentagon in honor of your team members. Can you talk to us about that process and what it meant to you?
Alex: “During the recovery process they were trying to figure out a way to memorialize our colleagues that died. One of my captains challenged me to come up with a design to honor our fallen friends so I spent my time every night going to every memorial in Washington D.C. several times. The constant thing that came out of those memorials was that they were made of rock. Specifically, granite because it lasts a long time. With that in mind, I met up with a gentleman who designed tombstones. He helped me design the memorial for the Pentagon. Once it was designed, it took us a full day to move the memorial from the truck into the Pentagon, and it weighed around one ton. It has the names of all the fallen at the Navy Command Center, an ad lib of the Navy Hymn at the bottom, and in the bottom right is an American Flag and an Eagle which is now the primary logo for 9/11. The memorial now lives in the Navy hallway outside the Command Center. It’s something I was proud of and something that still stands 20 years later.”
Amanda: What a thoughtful tribute to your friends-something that will live on forever. After 9/11, you also played a role in helping to rebuild the Command Center. Can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement with that?
Alex: “I was hired as a civilian to do so and spent almost six years getting the Command Center back to full use. We had to manually recover the data one tape at a time. Our team was able to recover 96% of the database. Walking through that hallway for six years and seeing that memorial plaque everyday, it was more like a tombstone. At that point, I felt I had to move on so I decided to leave Washington D.C and move to San Diego where I continue to work for the military developing projects and systems that help keep our country safe.”
Amanda: Wow! That sounds like intensive work. I can see how it would be exhausting and painful to pass by the memorial everyday for six years. I hope the move to California brought you some solace. Once you were in San Diego, that is where you first encountered the National 9/11 Flag. When it comes to your connection to the National 911 Flag, was it your experience on 9/11 that motivated you to want to place stitches in the Flag? Was it a way to continue to heal from the pain of that day?
Alex: “When they asked me to stitch the flag, it meant more to me than just healing. It was sacrifice for all those who were lost. It was remembering and appreciating everyone who came before me that had served and sacrificed anything for that flag. After 9/11, I carried a lot of anger but when I was invited to stitch the flag, I felt it was a good time to get out there and be joyful as a way to remember those that died. It was about those 42 friends who were working at the Pentagon, doing what they’re supposed to do for us. Taking care of us. While the flag represents 9/11 and the Twin Towers, that whole day and the days after 9/11, I saw a level of unity that goes back to everybody that served. From Vietnam, to World War I and II, that flag has a lot of meaning for a lot of people. It’s more than just one person. That white [of the stripes] is the innocence of the people that died that day. The blue, for me, is the Navy-the hardship and the honor. The word that comes to mind is hardness-being there and serving. And the red is sacrifice. People that died. It’s more than one person. It’s all of us. It’s what this country stands for. I can go to a baseball game or hear the song Colors when I’m on base and I’ll stop and put my hand over my heart. I have to do everything to keep from tearing up. It’s a reminder, with the flag and the music playing, of a love loss or someone you miss that passed away. It reminds me of all the loss but also reminds me how proud these people fought and sacrificed for us. When you look back during that day [9/11] and the days that followed and you see the flag being draped and still hanging there as torn as it was and the stitching that came afterwards, that flag started something. There were record enlistments. People wanted to be in the military to go do something about it. That flag showed we’re still standing and we’re grouping together. That day brought us together. There was so much unity. The flag is the same thing. It’s the representation of the different colors that we are. We all came together for one cause. It was the first time color, race, and political views didn’t matter. It was us against the people who hurt us and our loved ones. If you think about stitches, that’s stitching unity back together-bringing us back together. We all deserve a stitch on that flag. That’s what it really meant to me going out to that event to do that stitching.”
Amanda: Speaking of actually placing a stitch in the flag, what was that experience like for you?
Alex: “It was mixed. I was still struggling with my own issues. I was hesitant to go to the event but I knew I needed to heal. Going through PTSD after 9/11, I struggled with trusting people. I was constantly looking over my back. I was unable to fly on planes because I actually saw the plane coming through the Pentagon. I was dealing with fear of heights, and struggled driving over bridges, or being in high buildings. I was dealing with a lot of that anxiety on the day I stitched the flag. But, when it came time to stitch it, all I could think about were my friends that I lost that day. I focused on one stitch and thought, ‘one stitch, one day of healing, one stitch another day of healing’ It felt like I was moving toward the positive and in that moment, I found peace.”
Amanda: What do you hope others take away from the story of the National 9/11 flag?
Alex: “Right now I feel the flag is tearing back up again and we need to stitch it back together.
I wish anybody could look at the flag and take away the politics behind it because the flag doesn’t represent the politics. That flag represents the rights that you have. It represents all my friends, everybody I’ve lost, and people who are still out there fighting…fighting for everybody.
That flag could care less what color you are, what race you are, what political view, that flag says- you come to America and you can use me to drape you, you can use me to dry your tears, you can use me to drape across your friends coffin. I’m here for you.
And when we reflect on 9/11, even now, whoever I talk to about 9/11, we make a connection. We open up, we get to talking. 9/11 is a tool to reach people. When I share my story about that day, people reach out and say thank you for sharing. They tell me it reminds them of how much worse it can be or say, “I can handle what I’m going through or how did you handle going through that?” I’m happy to help people even as I’m struggling myself.”
Amanda: And you are helping people! In so many ways! Thank you for your years of sacrifice and service in the Navy and thank you for helping this country heal after 9/11 even as you were working to heal yourself. I know you are now working with teenagers, too. Whether through motivational speaking or mentoring, what is your message to our youth?
Alex: “Learn to love to be alone. Once you master being alone, you can master anything. The flag reminds us that no matter where you are you can be alone but right when you see those colors, you have thousands behind you backing you up in that moment, ready to go. Learn to be alone and be thunderous at it.”
Amanda: That’s so powerful. I love this idea of being thunderous. What does that word mean to you?
Alex: “Live your life loud…screaming. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be shy. Growing up, I never had somebody show me not to care about what other people think. I was shy and timid. The military helped me defeat that. When I joined the military is when I really learned to be thunderous–live each day like it’s the last because you never know.”
Amanda: Yes, you just never know what life has in store and unfortunately, each of us learned that on September 11, 2001. So, in the spirit of 9/12 let’s look to the future and live each day to the fullest by continuing to give back to one another. Continuing to be kind to one another, and take time to share our stories and listen to each other’s stories so we can create a more empathetic and understanding world. Thank you so much Alex for sharing your story with us. Your strength, honesty, and service is inspiring.