It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Roy Sexton was leading the Secret Service advance team for a visit by President George W. Bush to a classroom in Sarasota, Florida.
While the president read the story “Pet Goat” to the children at Emma Booker Elementary School, Sexton was sitting in the “holding room” next door, along with White House and other security officials.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was also in the room. He bent down and whispered in Sexton’s ear. Fleischer’s message was terrifying; he told Sexton that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. This was no coincidence; it appeared the nation was under attack.
Earlier in the day, the president had been given a report about a small plane hitting one of the twin towers. Initial indications were that the crash was an accident, so the president decided to continue with the school visit.
Now, suddenly, everything had changed. In the classroom, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered the same information into the president’s ear. Bush calmly waited for the children to finish reading their portion of the story, posed for photos with the class, and then quietly walked out.
What to do next was anything but clear.
It was then that Sexton, now vice president of Corporate Security at Alabama Power and Georgia Power, tapped some deeply ingrained lessons from his experiences as a veteran Naval officer and Naval Academy graduate.
Amid the uncertainty and swiftly elevating crisis, Sexton knew where his responsibilities lay, and he and his team methodically carried them out. “I had to get the whole entourage back to the airport,” Sexton recalled.
This was a time, not so long ago, when most people did not have cellphones. Instead, Secret Service agents and other federal security and executive branch officials wore pagers that could receive only brief text messages. Sexton said the flurry of information coming in that morning via text was confusing, conflicting and just “downright bad.”
Bush and his advisers remained in the holding room long enough to watch some initial TV reports and for the president to consult via phone with the head of the FBI. The president then scribbled a statement and walked into an auditorium full of students and parents, where he briefly described the “national tragedy” that was unfolding. Moments later, the president said in a later interview, he was “flying down the highway” with the Secret Service, back to the airport. On the way, the president learned a third plane had struck the Pentagon.
Not everyone was as calm as the president that morning, Sexton recalled. But Sexton had learned from experience that when you are in the midst of a crisis, sometimes the best thing to do is to pause – “remove yourself and think about it logically.”
Sexton spent 23 years with the Secret Service, including stints with the president’s counter-assault tactical team – “basically the president’s SWAT team,” he explained – and with the detail assigned to the first secretary of Homeland Security, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Creating the Department of Homeland Security was one of the major executive branch organizational shifts that took place after the 9/11 attacks.
Sexton joined the Secret Service after five and a half years of active duty in the Navy, first as an officer on the cruiser USS South Carolina and later as an instructor and company officer at Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.
He said his experiences at the Naval Academy, where he was a running back on the football team, and as a Naval officer provided lessons that have served him well during exemplary careers in government and as a corporate security executive.
“The experience at the academy absolutely shaped me as a person,” Sexton said. “Whatever else I’ve managed to get into, that’s the one thing that gives me the greatest sense of pride.
“It was a phenomenal education,” said Sexton, who graduated with a degree in mathematics and a minor in engineering. “But the process – what you learned and what you take away from there – if you took those lessons to heart, they are incredibly valuable.
“Serving in the military, I think it was a tremendous advantage. I’m so appreciative of that. The experience in the military taught me so much. It’s the kind of experience I could not have bought at any price.”
Sexton remembers being “a little unnerved” as a 25-year-old Annapolis graduate, boarding a plane in Norfolk, Virginia, on his way to Italy and his first assignment as an officer on the South Carolina, a California-class nuclear-powered, guided-missile cruiser with more than 500 sailors and officers on board. The South Carolina was supporting the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Mediterranean, where instability in the Middle East and North Africa deeply colored military strategy.
A few months before Sexton’s graduation, a truck-bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon – part of a multinational peacekeeping force during the ongoing Lebanese Civil War – killed 241 marines and sailors. It was the largest loss of life in a single day for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Sexton said one of his company mates at the academy, who had graduated a couple years earlier, was killed in Beirut that day.
Not long after joining the crew on the South Carolina, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked during a routine flight from Cairo to Athens. Over a “horrific” 17 days, the plane was forced to cross the Mediterranean with 153 passengers and crew members, including 40 Americans, from Beirut to Algiers and back again, landing in Beirut three times before finally being allowed to stop. The terrorists beat the passengers and threatened to kill them unless hundreds of Lebanese were released from Israeli prisons, according to an FBI description of the ordeal. One passenger, Navy diver Robert Stethem, was shot in the head and dumped on the tarmac at the Beirut airport.
The South Carolina was part of a three-ship amphibious force that moved into position off the coast of Lebanon, in case of a potential rescue mission. It didn’t happen after the hostages were removed from the plane and dispersed among multiple hideouts around the city. The hostages were eventually released following an intervention by President Ronald Reagan and Lebanese authorities.
Two years later, the South Carolina was off the coast of Libya when Libyan jet fighters flew so close to the ship that sailors were forced to man battle stations. The year before, U.S. Navy and Air Force bombers attacked five terrorist facilities inside Libya after intelligence reports linked that country to a terrorist attack on a West German nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen. Later in the year, Libya fired surface-to-air missiles on Navy ships and planes after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi falsely accused the U.S. of crossing into the country’s territorial waters.
While those were some of the more dramatic moments during Sexton’s service on the South Carolina, he said the most important lessons came during more routine interactions between him – a young and inexperienced officer – and the highly seasoned, noncommissioned officers and sailors that truly knew the ropes.
“When you show up, you have rank, but you don’t have a clue. You learn to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut” – a golden lesson he’s applied time and time again over the years, he said.
Sexton’s appreciation for the Navy also applies to his superior officers on the South Carolina, who had the confidence to place him in charge of teams operating millions of dollars of sophisticated onboard technology while he was barely out of college.
And it applies to those who took a chance and accepted a young man from the landlocked state of Kentucky, and from a family of limited means, into the Naval Academy.
“I was always one of those USA kids. I think my first bicycle was red, white and blue,” Sexton said. And yet, he wasn’t seriously considering Annapolis among his college choices until he received an unsolicited recruitment letter from the academy. He applied, although he wasn’t sure he would get in.
“To be a young person and to be given that kind of opportunity, that kind of experience, it was truly amazing,” Sexton said. “I am truly grateful.”
This story originally appeared in Powergrams.