Executive Director Benny Suggs ’69 reflects on 9/11

September 6, 2011
By Chris Saunders

The NC State Alumni Association, with special assistance from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Reserve Officer PrintTraining Corps, is sponsoring a memorial service Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, at the Alumni Memorial Belltower. The service is being held to recognize and honor all who perished 1o years ago when our nation was attacked. It will also honor our alumni and their families who have honorably served our country since NC State’s founding in 1887. For details, please click here.

Each day this week, we’ll publish a story on our blog about NC State connections to 9/11. For our first one, we talked with Alumni Association Executive Director Benny Suggs ’69 to discuss the significance of the upcoming memorial service. Suggs was a Naval aviator for 30 years before retiring and joining corporate America.

Can you describe the importance of NC State holding the 9/11 Memorial Service on Sunday? The importance is that we’ve had a long legacy of service to our country and our community. NC State’s all about making a difference in people’s lives… We’re taking time out on Sunday afternoon to honor all those people and their families who perished. One NC State alumnus was Lt. Cmdr. Eric Cranford, a 1992 graduate of the ROTC program here. He served as a Navy pilot. He was on watch that morning in the Naval Command Center in the Pentagon when one of the aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, killing Eric and a number of his colleagues. So we’re paying our respects to Eric and his family, who will be here with us, and also to the many folks with a variety of NC State connections who served so honorably since 9/11. That certainly includes the first responders, who’ll be represented. …This university does an outstanding job in producing leaders and making a difference in our communities in the military, in business and government worlds, and in higher education.

benny_suggs_stand1The military personnel  and the citizens participating in the service are not just random people. They have NC State ties. What’s the importance of the university family coming together to remember? It’s all about personal connections. I’m extremely proud of every graduate of NC State and of every friend of NC State. We’ve reached out to individuals who are alumni or are part of our faculty and staff, and without exception, they’ve stepped up very quickly and volunteered to do everything they can do to make this event one of the most honorable and memorable events we’ve ever done at NC State. I want the community to meet some of these people and see what fine examples of commitment and leadership they represent.

What are your memories of that day? The first aircraft crashed into the Twin Towers a little before 8 a.m. Central time. I was en route to an off-site meeting for some of the senior leadership for Harley-Davidson. …I walked into the conference room of the Hilton in downtown Milwaukee. A couple of my colleagues were looking at a live shot of the Twin Towers with smoke billowing out of one of the buildings. As we were watching, we saw the second aircraft hit it in real time.

…While I was at the Naval War College, I was part of the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group. I wrote my thesis on asymmetric warfare [in 1995]. I described the potential threat of people who have an intense hatred of others, coupled with religious fanaticism, little regard for life and an obvious avenue that they sincerely believe [leads] to martyrdom. You take that volatile combination and you couple it up with resources, you’ve got yourself a serious threat.

What does the 9/11 mean to you? It’s tremendous grief. I’m having a hard time even describing it. Honestly, I served for 30 years as honorably as I possibly could, trying to make a difference and protect the people and the families I served with. I think I did a good job. I was excited about my opportunity in corporate America, and that transition was working extremely well. Then, 9/11 happened and honestly, sitting on the sidelines, I almost felt guilty. I wanted to go make a difference because I knew people serving in very important leadership roles, and I worried about them. That was the first time since I left the Navy that I lost sleep at night. And I still do.

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