Teresa Prieto was working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the west side of the building. Sixty-four passengers and crew members perished in the plane crash. In the Pentagon building, an additional 125 military and civilian personnel lost their lives.
Seven years passed before Prieto could write in a journal about the tragedy; talking about it took a lot longer.
"Four of the casualties were my friends," said Prieto. "When I close my eyes, it's like it happened yesterday."
Prieto's military career took root when she was just a teenager. A meeting with an Army recruiter while in high school in Orlando, Fla., where she grew up, inspired her to explore the possibility of serving her country.
"After graduation I drove to Tampa for the physical and to begin the processing, but that's as far as it got," said Prieto.
Laid off from her civilian accounting job in 1991, Prieto once again considered the option of joining the Army.
"I pounded the pavement looking for work and I refused to accept unemployment. I wanted a job, not charity, and I knew the Army had plenty of jobs," said Prieto. "I enlisted after discussing the options with my first husband."
She took basic training and attended a school for personnel at Fort Jackson, S.C. In 1992, she took a position at Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany where she processed evaluation reports on officers and enlisted men at the 5th Corp Personnel Center in the Abrams Headquarters Complex.
Her daughter and first husband joined her in Germany and the family lived in the on-base housing.
Prieto then moved to an assignment at Fort Myer, Va. next to Arlington National Cemetery. Although she reenlisted, Prieto knew her military days were numbered.
"In Germany I was diagnosed with Morton's neuroma, a pediatric disease caused by the lack of fat cells in the feet. I was basically rubbing bone on bone when marching or jogging. I cried from the pain," she recalled.
She underwent surgery to cut nerves in her feet to ease the discomfort. "It didn't help much," she said.
Still battling Morton's neuroma, Prieto jumped at the opportunity when offered a civilian position as computer consultant for a private contractor inside the Pentagon.
"The Army allowed lateral moves, so I left the military and started working in the Pentagon the next day," she said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists targeted the outer ring of the Pentagon, which has five rings that start in the interior as A and B, separated from outer rings C, D, and E by a road for truck deliveries. The first news of the attack for Prieto arrived via e-mail."A friend e-mailed me and said the Pentagon was on fire. I didn't believe her. I was on the opposite side of the Pentagon and didn't feel the impact," said Prieto.
"About the same time, my supervisor received a call and was told a helicopter had struck the west E ring. He ran out, then security personnel began emergency evacuations.
"My coworker and I tried to swipe our cards to leave, but a security officer shouted, 'Don't swipe, just get outta here!' so we ran from the building to a grassy area on the other side of the parking lot.
"We could see the huge pillars of smoke billowing from the west E ring. That's when I knew it wasn't a helicopter that hit the Pentagon."
Stunned, confused and frightened, Prieto, and her co-workers, began to feel sense of comfort when fighter jets arrived overhead.
"We were happy to see the fighters, because security officers were shouting, 'Move back, move back, another plane is inbound.' That was the airliner that crashed in Shanksville, but I doubt if anybody that day knew where it was headed," she said.
Officials ordered Prieto to go home.
"I fought traffic jams, picked up isolated families, and tried to call home," she said. "But cell phones were useless because of overloaded airwaves."
Eventually able to reach all her family members, Prieto returned to work on Sept. 12 as fear and sadness gripped the nation.
"I was proud to see the American flag on the side of the Pentagon. It was like America was saying, 'You only won this round,'" said Prieto.
When they returned to work, Prieto and several coworkers noticed drink machines that had been vandalized, or so they thought.
"We found out the firemen and other rescue personnel had broken into the machines on 9/11 to stay hydrated and give fluids to the survivors," she said.
Prieto is now employed as a pharmacy technician and lives in Conyers with her second husband, Bill Prieto, and two stepdaughters. They attend Epiphany Lutheran Church where she serves as a Stephen minister.
Prieto continues to struggle with the emotional impact of Sept. 11.
"I don't want to relive that day, too many bad memories," she said.