Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. understands the costs of the last 10 years, the prices U.S. troops have paid in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the American people, he insists, also must be mindful of the gains.
“One human life is a significant cost,” he says. “But you have to ask what the consequences would be if we fail…”
“I think what our nation has done in the last 10 years is incredible. The fact that there has not been another attack against America on its soil, that is hugely, hugely significant.”
At 57, Caslen has just finished a stint as the commanding general of Fort Leavenworth and the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center. He’s now headed to Iraq to serve as commander of the Office of Security Cooperation.
He was 47 on 9/11, sitting in his office in the E-ring, on the river side of the Pentagon, when the first airliner plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Caslen, a colonel then, had just bought a forest green Ford F-150 pickup three days before. He parked at some distance from the building’s south entrance to keep it safe. It’s where another plane would soon come crashing down, but his truck was untouched.
He recalls being transfixed by the news that morning.
“I was in the office, watching TV,” he says. “People were thinking it was a freak accident. Personally, I was thinking, ‘This is too bizarre to be a freak accident.’?”
When the second plane struck, it was clear: America was under attack.
Caslen figured that the next attacks would target the Pentagon.
“Sixteen minutes later, the plane hit,” he recalls. He was on the far side of the building, away from the crash.
“I will tell you, I did not hear or feel a thing,” he says. Then sirens blared. “I thought it was something like a car bomb.”
Workers were evacuated. From outside the Pentagon, Caslen watched fire and smoke erupt from the building. Medics sped the injured away. Caslen turned to a superior officer.
“Sir, life as we know it is going to change,” he recalls saying.
Outside the Pentagon, as flames leaped from the building, a friend snapped a photo of the collapsed building, its rooms and corridors open to the air. At the center was an office with a desk and, next to it, an American flag fixed in a beam of light.
Since that day, Caslen has put in several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is headed back again.
“Every time I deploy,” he says, “I take that picture with me.”