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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Colonel and Crew at Ground Zero

...I finally made it. Seven years, one month and one day later I found myself at the location that changed my life. It was Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 that pulled me from my civilian job to write security plans for the state of Louisiana, serve as the Operations Officer for the Louisiana National Guard contingent in support of the U.S. Secret Service for the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans, and deployed me away from my new family to Iraq in time for the first free elections in that nation in 30 years.

We met my good friend, Sergeant First Class John Chalker, also one of NY's Finest in the 'day job' that most National Gaurdsmen have, and his son Sean at Church Street on the west side of Ground Zero. John deployed to Iraq as one of many of the Fightin' 1-69 Infantry Soldiers who were attached to my Brigade in the spring of 2004. This day was, in addition to my own emotional visit to the site, about John's story on September 11th.

Having just come off of night police duty, John's phone began ringing early on the morning of September 11th. He tried to ignore it at his Long Island home because he was very tired from the night's patrolling. As the ringing would not quit, however, he finally picked up to find his crying wife on the phone telling him to turn on the news, they had been attacked in the downtown area and she was evacuating with the rest of her office building. He turned on the news to see the first tower billowing black smoke and caught the second airplane strike as he continued to try and calm his wife. She got on the last train out of the city heading to Long Island, and he could hear the screams in the background as his wife turned around with other passengers to see the first of two towers collapse. Knowing how bad this was from what he was seeing on TV, and also knowing Mrs. Chalker was safe, he told her he loved her and had to hang up to go into his unit, the 1-69 Infantry, whose headquarters was in downtown Manhattan. Getting dressed in his military uniform and without an activation phone call because the phone systme was overloaded, he went in to his police headquarters on Long Island, turned in his badge and gun, and made his way down to his unit already beginning to deploy to establish security in support of the police and firemen at Ground Zero. John finally made it home for Thanksgiving that year and Mrs. Chalker put aside her fears to go back to work once they let them back into Manhattan, a testament to his own and his wife's strength and the bedrock of our American society.

John walked us around Ground Zero, to the Policeman's Memorial nearby which lists the names of all policemen in NYC who gave their lives in the line of duty since records were kept more than 200 hundred years ago, to the building where they discovered a tire from one of the planes on September 12th, to Ladder 10 which was devastated on the morning of the attack, and then to the WTC Visitor's Center established next to the site. Of singular note on that walk-about was seeing St. Paul's Church on the west side of Ground Zero. This church was where President George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of The United States. Its cemetery with grave stones dating back into the 1600's stands right next to where the towers stood and has many, large trees within. While the cemetery itself was covered with soot and debris when the towers fell, the trees protected the Church from ALL damage - there was not even one shattered pane of glass on site. St. Paul's became a source of refuge for the many volunteers working at Ground Zero to support the recovery effort, including Soldiers from the 1-69 Infantry working site security.

My personal thanks to John (and his son who plays goalie on his local Hockey team!) for their tour of the site. It was a day easier to take in for its significance one day later as I contemplate and type. I felt many things as we walked and talked. St. Paul's Church, unscathed in this heinous attack, I believe stood as a sign of strength and mercy against all of the suffering of that fateful day and the days that followed. The actions of Joh Chalker and his wife, despite their personal concerns and, at times, fears of what was to come, did what they had to do to fight back against this terrible situation, a testament to the character of New Yorkers in particular and Americans in general whether the TV news tells us so or not. And to see the site which charted my life over the last several years made me angry, awestruck and proud all at once.

I will leave this post here for now as it is difficult to not be emotional about it. Remembering that entire week of not being able to contain my tears every time I saw the footage of the attack and, the tears of departing my family for 18 months of active duty and deployment to Iraq for my part in the War or Terror, and the immense swell of pride that we, Americans, persevered through this attack is enough for now.

More to follow...

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