Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11: The Heart of the Matter

One year ago on September 11th, I stood on the New York Presbyterian Hospital deck looking down at the East River. In the weeks prior to the 10th anniversary of that terrible day when evil struck at the heart of America, I had listened to Jack Delaney - who was Director of Emergency Services at New York Presbyterian Hospital on 9/11 - as he shared his experiences of that day and the aftermath. If you missed it the first time, go here and read his first-hand account.

Now looking down at the river I felt so small as I watched the boat traffic gently riding the waves on this Sunday morning. I thought back to the Tuesday morning ten years earlier; one of America's darkest days, but also a day where the heart of America shone so brightly.

As I stood quietly watching the ebb and flow of this river, I was so incredibly humbled. I had come to this place on this day at the invitation of some very special Americans. I had come to remember and honour. A few years earlier I had been privileged to interview the mom and dad of Keith Fairben, a Paramedic who died on 9/11, along with his partner Mario Santoro, as they were focused on saving others' lives. First Diane, Keith's mom, and then Ken, Keith's dad, had honoured me by sharing their hearts, the heart of their son with me, and allowing me to tell the world the story of his life.

(Keith and Mario - with his back to the camera - totally focused on saving lives)

Through Ken and Diane, and then Jack, I came to see 9/11 through the hearts of Americans, that the mainstream media will never understand.. Yes, last year the msm was in a frenzy because it was the 10-year anniversary, but I had been shown the still-beating hearts of those most directly impacted, and I came to New York to see, and to hold, those hearts. Standing next to Jack Delaney on the deck, I thought of all the broken hearts - hearts that were stopped, and hearts that still beat, but will forever be wrapped in sorrow because evil struck the heart of America on that bright day in September 2001.

On September 11, 2001, I sat in front of my television 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero as the msm talking heads tried to make some sense of the horrific images they kept repeating, over and over. I cried a lot that day and in the ensuing weeks even though, on the surface of the matter, I was far removed from the horrors of that day.

Since then, for reasons I have yet to understand(although a certain person swears this is because I am not "normal' *gasp*) , 9/11 and the hearts most intimately affected, has become very personal to me. This year, the 11th year since 9/11, the msm attention seems to be far more muted; America and the world has moved on from there.

For most, 9/11 is now just another day on the calendar, but for some, every day is 9/11 as they have to live with the effects, the ripples that continue on from there. Since 9/11/2011, the number of First Responders who have died as a direct result of all they inhaled - the injuries they sustained - has reached 1,000; that is 1,000 families who will continue to pay the cost of that day. Think about that a moment: 1,000 over 10 years is almost 2 a week! Two families almost every single week left with a terrible legacy...It is a fact that we will continue to lose First Responders as a direct result of 9/11. It is also a fact that to the msm these are but more numbers, not beating hearts stopped, leaving gaping holes in their families, their communities. I have written of a few of them here here and about James Zadroga, whose name became synonymous with the fight the First Responders had to wage with the politicians to get the care and benefits they had earned here, but the truth of the matter is that for most of those we lose, and their families, the world remains oblivious.

And this is wrong on just about any level. In the last ten years, various politicians have proclaimed their support for our First Responders - the survivors - but, even today, there is still some debate on whether to include various forms of cancer in the Victims Compensation Fund for our First Responder survivors.

Most politicians' actions (or rather INactions) have proved how little they really care about the individual First Responders who put their lives on the line - some paying the ultimate price - on 9/11, and this infuriates me. In last year's column by Jack Delaney, he had this to say about just one of the politicians:

Christi Whitman and the EPA was a great disappointment to all of us after the fact. The EPA famously released reports minimalizing what we had all been exposed to. I'd like to have seen her in that bag that I put the clothes I wore on 9/11, spinning, and have her be in the same position she put us in. Then let her tell all of us how minimally we were all affected.

She was not the only politician - then or now - hellbent on proving her callous, wilful ignorance, indifference. I read somewhere recently that on this year's 9/11 event at Ground Zero, politicians will not be giving speeches. This is a very good thing! One politician whose words are etched in my memory is President Bush. Following 9/11, he gave an address to the nation which I shall never forget:

These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.


Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.

It is some of those - the best of America - that I have come to know and love. It is Americans such as these - the heart of America - who I was proud to stand with last year as we honoured those we lost on 9/11. On 9/11, I was privileged to sit with Ken and Diane in a church service at United Methodist Church of Floral Park, and as we prayed together, I thought about Keith and Mario. I thought about

Kevin Pfeifer

I thought of Jimmy Pappageorge who, along with Kevin, had been working for the Fire Department at the time of 9/11.

My prayers were for all the hundreds of Heroes we lost that day: 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, including one FDNY Fire Chaplain, Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, 23 New York City Police Department officers, and 37 Port Authority Police Department officers Casualties of the 9/11 attacks also included 15 EMTs and 3 Court Officers.

In the quiet, I thought about all these much-loved Heroes. I thought about their families. Sons who would never be safely loved in their parents' embrace ever again. I thought about the young fathers we lost, and their small children, who couldn't have understood then all the madness and mayhem of the dark, evil, poisonous clouds over their homes that day. My heart hurt - as I thought about the innocent little ones, whose beloved parents rushed to serve their fellow Americans on 9/11, and then never came home to give another hug, another goodnight story, another 'I love you.' Lives changed forever because of an ideology that worships death, not life.

As President Bush said, and as Jack Delaney also emphasised to me last year, if the terrorists' goal was to plunge America into chaos and fear, they failed - BIG time - and I saw that first-hand in all the people I met last year.

There were many sombre events I was privileged to be included in, but there was also lots of laughter.. oh so much laughing going on. There was the Annual Keith Fairben Old Fashioned Tournament - a lot of fun - and a Canada Goose even put in a flyover appearance! No, honest, wasn't me who planned that!!~

I went with Diane and Ken to Floral Park Fire Station, where Keith volunteered, and saw his gear lovingly preserved for all time. As I stood and looked at this, I thought about the heart of Keith. Everybody I have ever talked to about Keith always talks about his huge heart, his love of laughter, and as I listen I know that the heart of Keith - his essence - will live on. And yes, I know he still laughs.

One of the fun events I attended was a Survivors' Party. I was initially reluctant to attend, not wanting to intrude, being an outsider and all (and a foreigner as well!) but to say I was humbled to be invited would be an understatement. I put aside my hesitation and did go, partly as my personal way to honour and celebrate these First Responders who faced death - and lived. I also felt, in some small way, that I represented those we lost from so many other countries on 9/11. (A dirty job, but somebody had to do it!!) Yes, New York is Ground Zero and the majority of innocent lives lost were Americans, but 90 other countries also lost citizens that day. Of the 373 foreigners who perished on 9/11, 24 were Canadian, 11 were Australian, and 68 British citizens. Yes, under the Long Island dark night-time sky last year, Canada's national anthem Oh Canada rang out, pure and sweet. Thanks, JR!

There is an old cliche that says something to the effect that only those who have faced death truly know the value of life, of living. The people I met on that back deck at the Survivors Party showed me what it means to truly embrace life. As I met and talked with so many of NYPH 'peeps' who lived to tell the tale of that horrific day, I saw and felt - was wrapped - in the heart and soul of America. Every single person I met reminded me what it is to live, to laugh, to love with an open heart. And they did open their hearts to me, for which I will always be grateful. Years from now, 9/11 may be mere paragraphs in dusty old history books, but it is the heart of America that I will remember, even if the msm and most of America has forgotten.

During my visit last year, and as I talked with Keith, Mario, Jimmy and Kevin's colleagues, I was constantly reminded of how blessed I am to have seen the shining light that IS America; the hearts that most outsiders never see; the American spirit that no terrorists will ever quash. With that in mind, the NYPH EMS survivors agreed to entrust and share with me their memories, their stories, their lives, their lessons of that day. We are producing a compilation - which will be available to the public as a permanent record. It bothers me mightily that to many, 9/11 is mere numbers and statistics, and it is one of my goals to show America WHO these heroes of 9/11 are, to put individual human faces on a day of such unimaginable - immense - consequence.

Consequence. One of the aspects of 9/11 I have spent many hours pondering over the last years, is the consequences of such evil. Over the past years of coming to know and love my very own '9/11 family' (there is no better description) one of the most striking similarities is how each and every one of them chooses to live their lives, forever changed as they were by that day. One of the things Jack said in his interview with me last year (okay, the first interview....lol) has stayed with me; a lesson he learned from a radio announcer he remembers from his childhood. :

"Unwrap every day as if every day is a precious moment. "

Those words may have come to me from Jack, but as I spent time last 9/11 with the EMS survivors, and in this past year in preliminary interviews with them, that IS one of the common threads: to each person who survived 9/11, every moment, every day tastes exquisitely precious, and they embrace each one with such enthusiasm. There are upcoming marriages, new families created, promotions etc etc, but every one of them is still serving their communities in similar ways as they served America on 9/11. From Ken and Diane who daily contribute to the wellbeing of our troops, to those who are still involved in EMS, to those young 'uns who became police officers. One of Keith's friends turned to teaching, and is now teaching kids who weren't even born on 9/11. (I'll even include *ahem* those who are supposed to be 'retired' from the EMS field, but spend almost every waking hour still serving their community! You know who you are.)

Many private consequences, many private choices made in the years after 9/11 by those who lived, survived. Daily choices which refuse to allow the evil of 9/11 to control, define their lives.

One of the very public consequences was America and her coalition partners answering the act of war by Islamist terrorists by mobilising our various Militaries.

Young men and women from urban America, from small town America - and everywhere in between - answered the call, volunteered to fight the Global War on Terror, and since 9/11, almost 7,000 Americans - young men and women cherished by their families - have given their lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Seven thousand! If you read that number fast, it is almost possible to forget that every one of those represents the heart of a patriotic son, brother, father, husband, sister, daughter, wife, and yes, mother. In the years I have written on Milblogs and Military news sites, I have been shown yet another aspect of the heart of these patriots who selflessly volunteered to serve their country; sons and daughters who chose to answer the call to serve, just as the 9/11 First Responders chose to answer the call of service.

As I was in NY last year, I often thought about them all, some of them whose hearts and lives I have come to know, through the trust, and the grace of their surviving families who opened their hearts to me. I thought - and think daily - about how they are intricately forever connected to the 9/11 Heroes who responded so selflessly to the threat of evil. To the world these young Americans of our Military may just be names on Honor Rolls, but I have been blessed to be a witness for the honourable hearts and lives of these incredible Fallen Heroes, and their incredible families. Their faces and lives are forever engraved on my own heart, just as the faces, the lives lived, of 9/11, and the loves, are now and forever a part of my heart. They each humble me every single day.

As well as becoming 'family' to some of our Gold Star Families, I also have come to know and support more than a few Active Duty Military, as well as Veterans. It has been said that those who fought to eradicate the evil frogmarching the world in WW2 - of which my father and so many of my family were active contributors - were our Greatest Generation. It is undeniable that the men - and women - who stood in the path of evil, were the heart, the best of their countries, and the history books will remain as an indelible record of their heroism and courage.

However, it is my firm belief, based on all that I have come to feel, to know, that the men and women who stood fast in the face of the incredible evil darkness that was 9/11, were the genesis of our next greatest generation. They, and our Military men and women who have continued the steadfast response to fight such evil ideology with the sword of freedom, with such heart and selfless dedication to serve, more than match the original Greatest Generation. Take my word for it - they DO!

Ten years after 9/11, our Troops tracked and killed the evil mastermind behind 9/11. The usual politicians rushed to the nearest microphones to bloviate, but my heart immediately leapt to those I have come to know and love personally. I wrote of the reaction of many whose lives had been directly impacted by this evil, hateful man: Dena Yllescas, a Gold Star Family; Deborah Iverson May, a Gold Star Widow; Keith's dad, Ken. Another column I wrote had Voices of September 11, Keep America Safe, and other Gold Star Mothers (Mickey Arnette for example, mother of Jason. )

I also asked Diane, Keith's mom how this news made her feel. Her reply:

I'm okay, going through a mixed bag of emotions. Funny, I feel no reason for celebrating, I am afraid of the retaliation that will come. I always said it will make no difference if we kill him...it is far and widespread, and they will continue to carry out their attacks. It was a morale booster for sure for the military, and rightly so.,

Reminded that it was from intel they got from GITMO that led to this day.. The GITMO that Obama said he would close. In his speech Obama was pretty good. He zeroed in on the 9/11 families.

When I first saw pictures of Americans celebrating it bothered me at first. Ground Zero is sacred to me. But they were very respectful, and not at all like the celebrations that went on in the middle east after 9/11. I saw a lot of firemen there at Ground Zero and I felt better about it. But we all know this is not the end of the war. I am very afraid of retaliation.

In my neighbourhood everybody got their flags out; they are all flying the American flag.

What would Keith have been doing last night? He would have been out there, fists in the air, and in the bars celebrating. But for me, today? No, there is no closure.
I spoke to Jack Delaney too, and he said:

I had just been home a short while when my son told me the news. Initially, I was relieved, and my next thought was that we had just totally annoyed the terrorists/OBL followers. I thought about post-9/11 middle east, and figure it was really going to piss them all off, seeing Americans celebrate.

Yes, I went down to Ground Zero, after grabbing a bottle of champagne. I went with one of my crew, and it was cops, Fire Dept, and some in military uniforms. It was very peaceful. Incredible. Breathtaking. Very emotional time.

I was thinking about OBL and how this day is a double-edged sword. He will now be viewed as a martyr, and his death will rejuvenate his followers. We need to pay close attention. Be prepared.


Not really closure for the families, for any of us. No. Maybe a sense of justice.

There are many more reactions to the news of ObL's death here. The majority of people I know, and talked to, agree that there is no closure. There is not ever an end to the price our 9/11 First Responders' families, and our Gold Star Families, will pay til they, too, draw, their last breath. From the tearing wounds on their hearts, to the physical sicknesses they carry around with them, for the 9/11 Survivors there is never an escape from the legacies of that day; none.

Since the earth was cleansed of the ObL pollution, we have continued to lose our First Responders from the insidious cell-destroying crap they all breathed in on 9/11, and the following days, as they struggled to find survivors in the deadly rubble, only later turning their efforts to a recovery mission.

Since ObL went to his watery grave, we have also continued to lose our young men and women of our Military as they have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, directly toe to toe with the Islamist terrorists. In the sandbox we have lost 249 brave American hearts in 2012 alone. Not included in that number is my friend, my 'nephew,' SSG Brian Cowdrey who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan on October 13, 2011. This is our first 9/11 without Brian here, and I can't help but know that Brian and our EMS 'peeps' would so have enjoyed each other. He exemplified the same dedication to service - to saving lives - as the Heroes of 9/11 did that day, and do every day still, as they choose to find ways to continue to save lives. As is so evident to me about my 9/11 family, Brian also had one of the biggest hearts. Truly. Oh and did I mention Brian was a DUSTOFF, and yes, with as warped a sense of humour as my 9/11 'peeps'????! !

On October 16, 2011 I wrote:

SSG Brian Cowdrey: "Who shall I send?"

Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.

(KJV Isaiah 6:8)

February 2010 during Operation Moshtarak - Brian providing aid to wounded Medic Casey Morrison. (Brian said on his FB page at the time he shared this picture: This photo was taken by an AP embed named Brenan Lindsley... if there was ever a guy who could capture those telling moments it was him! Thank you Brenan for sharing our story!!)

...The family released a media thing about Brian which said in part:]

It is with heavy hearts and deep sorrow that we announce the death of our soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert B. Cowdrey, 39, who died Oct. 13 in Kunar province, Afghanistan, from injuries suffered during combat operations. Brian was a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a mentor, and a very passionate and dedicated flight medic with the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.. His death leaves a hole in our hearts that can never be filled. There are no words adequate enough to express how much Brian was loved, how much he will be missed, and how the lives he touched – and saved – will be forever changed because he was on this earth....

If you missed it the first time out, go read the rest of this column here and see the heart of the man, as Jill, the love of his life, shares the Brian many of us came to know and love.

Since my initial introduction to my own 9/11 family, I have seen and heard - learned - so very much. Every day is a continual processing for me, of the images, the sounds, the smells of that day as shared with me from the hearts of those actually there that day.

In all that I have seen and heard, and witnessed, there is one fact I KNOW that is engraved on my soul, which eases - for me - the weight of all the terrible things I have come to know about that day.

I KNOW that the EMS family, the First Responders of 9/11 ARE the heart of America. For me, the day I coincidentally (!) fell across Keith Fairben's name, and approached Diane for an interview, will remain a pivotal day in my life. I have often remarked in various venues that there are no such things as coincidence, but they are instead what I call "God moments." All those years ago when I sat and watched on tv the overwhelming big picture that was New York, America under attack, I had no way of knowing that my path would lead to the hearts of people I would come to hold so dear.

To say I am blessed is a gross understatement, as I have been given the rare privilege of seeing into the hearts of America. These men, women, families, of 9/11 and beyond, ARE the heart of the matter. Never, ever doubt.

Every single one of them matter to my heart; they are part of my heart, as I carry them with me. That will not change. Ever.

Just as the East River flows, timeless, and connected forever - some might say all the way to Bratville! - so, too is my heart forever connected to these most precious hearts of America.

(c) All photographs copyright and used with permission.
(c) All content copyright Brat (and NYPH-EMS...lol)

[***BratNote: To access the extensive archive I have here on 9/11 related columns, just put 9/11 in the search thing at top left]

1 comment:

Laurie said...

You made me cry, again.