Clifton Dates’ telephone rang within minutes of a terrorist-seized jetliner crashing into the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m. (CDT) on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The call was from Fort McNair – just across the Potomac River, a few miles from the Pentagon. Dates, then CEO of Memphis-based CDA Inc., a private security firm with 450 armed officers, had 200 of those officers under contract to help guard the fort.
“The Pentagon has just been hit,” shouted the caller. “What should we do?”
“You hurry up and get the f*** out of there,” Dates shouted back, knowing he had to get to D.C. and bring “a sense of control” to the CDA’s security operation.
That meant getting over a hurdle. In the wake of the World Trade Center bombings and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded all flights. Dates used his top-secret level government clearance for a ride on a private jet out of Memphis.
“Twenty years later, the memory is as vivid as it ever was,” said Dates. “There were pieces of the plane and fragments of the (Pentagon) building floating out there in the water.”
A former Memphis Police Department officer, Dates co-founded the Memphis Afro-American Police Association. Now 75, he is a terminal patient with multiple conditions caused by an accident with Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“I’ve had a good life,” said Dates. “I did just what I wanted to do. I have never been afraid of death. I was daring. I didn’t give a damn.”
A “C- or D-student” in high school, Dates recalled that “back in the ’60s, the draft was alive and well. … Those who weren’t doing much after high school were being drafted. So, when I got that yellow envelope in the mail, I went down to the Air Force recruitment office. I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army, where a lot of my friends were being shot up, killed and maimed.”
From a Thailand air base, Dates loaded freight onto airplanes carrying bombs to drop on the Viet Cong.
“One day, this large, green drum with yellow writing was accidentally tilted and fumes started coming out,” said Dates. “The words on it read, ‘Hazardous Material.’ I’m pretty sure it was Agent Orange.”
The gaseous poisons seeped from the drum, knocking Dates unconscious. He woke up in the infirmary with completely bandaged arms and legs – part of the treatment for his chemically-burned skin.
That day altered his life forever, although he did not officially learn until much later what he had been exposed to and the sometimes-deadly effects.
“I’ve had problems over the years. But my records supposedly burned up in a fire,” said Dates, long lacking the level of proof required to document his exposure to Agent Orange.
He pushed on, joining the Memphis Police Department and subsequently taking on private security duties for clients such as Isaac Hayes. In 1988, he founded CDA Security.
Dates sold his company in 2013 amid declining health. It had become Memphis’ largest African-American-owned business.
Now readily within his grasp at his home in the gated community of Banneker Estates off of Horn Lake Road are papers documenting Dates’ Agent Orange condition and the federal government’s commitment to financial compensation.
“Just think, over 50 years from that time, they have to pay me for all those years,” said Dates. “I’m going to do something great for my people. …
“Before I leave this world, I’m going to leave my mark. I don’t know how long I have. It could be a few weeks, or it could be a year. I just don’t know. …
“I’m ready to go when the time comes, whenever that may be.”