I’ve had the privilege of working with three generations of military veterans during service in three branches (Air Force, Army Guard and Navy Reserve) over a 40-year period that included a 21-year break in service and retirement from the Navy Reserve in 2007.
On that infamous day, Sept. 11, 2001, I was en route to a meeting in Rehoboth Beach when a friend called, asking about an aircraft hitting the World Trade Center.
As a former LaGuardia Airport air traffic controller who directed aircraft over WTC, I was familiar with the towers and the airspace and assured him it must have been a small plane that lost its way.
I pulled into a Wawa, knowing it had a small TV. A dozen people crowded around the black-and-white set about the time the second tower was struck, then the Pentagon. As a member of the Delaware Army National Guard, I called the Wilmington headquarters, wondering if we might be at war. No one was called up at that time, although many served multiple tours in related assignments since then.
As we should, we remember the innocent victims and loved ones lost on that Tuesday morning two decades ago.
The real heroes, then and now, are those who ran toward danger on our generation’s day of infamy. The firemen, police officers and citizens who rushed into buildings that would soon collapse on them live on in our memories, as do those lost at the Pentagon.
Nor should we forget the passengers of Flight 93, who overpowered hijackers and deprived the terrorists of the U.S. Capitol.
Most of all, we owe unending gratitude to the thousands of men and women lost and disabled in preventing additional attacks on our homeland since.
My Army Guard enlistment ended several months later, and in February 2002, I joined the Navy Reserve and was assigned to the Chief of Information Office (CHINFO) in the Pentagon. The Pentagon’s five rings are designated from A to E outward. CHINFO was on the third floor of C ring and overlooked the D and E rings that had been leveled five months earlier.
This vantage point allowed me to observe the ongoing rebuilding process during each monthly drill. I saw the “Thank you” and “We love you” signs taped to the windows by staffers, in gratitude to the construction crews for their hurried work. Everyone’s goal was to have the rebuilding completed by the first anniversary of 9/11. They made it.
I drilled with those who were there on 9/11, who ran through darkened, smoke-filled halls away from the searing heat. Some near the impact were burned when dragging colleagues out of the fire and rubble.
One 20-something enlistee related her ongoing nightmares of running but never getting away. Her workout routine included jogging nearly every day to ensure she would always be ready to get away from any future danger.
In March 2003, as the ongoing war against terror extended into Iraq, I was mobilized to the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed) in Bethesda, Maryland. Although mobilized to supplement the armed security force, for the first three months of a 10-month deployment I worked in the Public Affairs Office, pairing battle-injured Marines with their hometown media requesting interviews — if the Marine agreed.
They had been shot, blown-up, blinded, burned and even crushed. For those willing and able to be interviewed, my role was to transport the Marine in a wheelchair to a private interview room.
Military interviewees must be accompanied by someone from Public Affairs to ensure that they are not ambushed with questions above their paygrade. It was also my job to watch the patient closely for signs of physical and emotional stress and to end the interview as needed. I missed my cue twice and felt guilty.
The great majority of interviews were conducted in a compassionate, businesslike manner and without incident. These “hometown hero” interviews always ended with, “Do you have any regrets? The response was always, “Yes — that I left my Marines behind.”
The interviews often included personal details of incidents that have had a cumulative emotional effect on me.
At a separate location, I was assigned to be present when a nurse in her crisp, white uniform was to be interviewed by the Navy Times. She was asked about her experience on the USNS Comfort hospital ship off Iraq, where she also cared for Iraqi civilians caught up in the fighting. As the camera rolled, she lost her composure, unable to continue.
I was present when Oprah Winfrey interviewed first-day casualties from her Chicago studio. The mothers of a Marine and a Navy corpsman were present, as both men sat side by side in their wheelchairs at Bethesda.
The Marine had stepped on a land mine that amputated his left leg below the knee, and the corpsman lost his right leg while providing aid to him. They will always have a special brand of comradery.
The medical staff at Bethesda — many of whom were reservists called up to replace those deployed on the Comfort — truly loved their patients. Despite some wounded arriving with poor prognoses for survival, all made it during my stint there.
On my retirement day, I read the 15-foot banner across the wall of CHINFO that remains true today: “Every generation has its heroes. This one is no different.”
Today, the most recent entries to our pantheon of heroes include the 13 Marines and Army and Navy members who made the ultimate sacrifice saving others in Afghanistan on Aug. 26.
Please keep these heroes, their families and all who care for them at Veterans Affairs in your thoughts and prayers, not only now but every day.
Their legacy to us has been 20 years of safety.
Dave Skocik is a Vietnam veteran and president of Delaware Veterans Coalition.