Words… What to say? I have struggled with this now for a year. On a recent outing with my family I chanced upon an historical quote.
General J.L. Chamberlain of Brewer Maine was once described by another General in the Union army as having the courage of a lion and the heart of woman. To me that probably speaks more to our forebears' understanding of the strength of women then it does of the strength of the General’s heart. He was know to be a fierce battlefield commander, but also a man who cared deeply for his men and grieved their losses.
On this, the one-year anniversary, I think we can all relate to that pathos of honoring courage and grieving loss.
General J.L. Chamberlain on October 3 1889 while dedicating a civil war battlefield in which his troops were reburied said these words. They are as true to day as they were one hundred and thirteen years ago. I offer his words in remembrance for those lost on 9-11. I ask you as I read these words to scan back in your mind to the pictures you have seen in the last year.
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass. Bodies disappear. But spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and we not know of ....
"Heart drawn to see where by and by, and by whom great things were suffered, and done unto them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and low the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom and the power of the vision pass into their souls
"There is no greater reward of service. To live far out and on, in the life of others ; this is the mystery of grace – to give life's best, for such high sake, that it shall be found again and again unto eternal life."
Words……What to say? I have struggled with this now for a year. As our nation has progressed in our coming to terms with September 11th 2001, across this year, the what, of what needs to be said, changes subtly.
It has been a year now since I stood in my kitchen making peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches for my daughter's lunch boxes and I got a phone call saying. "Good Luck I guess you're going. ….." I turned on the TV to what would change my life forever.
My life like so many others changed on that day. The fabric of so many communities and families have been ripped a part by evil…..Too strong a word… "evil." I think not. Ground Zero is a nexus in many ways. A place were different forces came together and erupted. In that crucible much of greatest value was destroyed in both life and in property. However, as the fires subsided and the dust cleared out of that crucible there rose a few phoenixes that we must cling to. They are the foundations upon which we can rebuild. That which rose again has proven worthy of being core to the structure of this nation and to civilization itself, and … to individual lives … as we go further into this new century.
What to say? What words are worthy to mark our acts of remembrance after this, the first year, for an event that cannot and should not ever be forgotten.
What to say? That has been the question since the beginning. How to tell my children what has happened. Why Daddy has to leave. Explain the sound of the VT National Guard constantly refueling over our house by the men and women over at Pease AFB as the protect New York and Boston. What to say…?
At Ground Zero, we divided the world into "old guys" and "young guys." Young guys just meant you hadn't been in yet. Being an old guy just meant you had already been inside the red zone working. The grey dust, torn clothing, in some cases blood, eye wash spattered faces and that look of having aged a life time, in a few days, gave away the old guys among us.
For myself, On September 11th I stood in the ESU command center a new guy as men and women covered in a thick layer of grey dust filed past. They seemed to have lost all of their individuality to their covering. Everything but their eyes. The only appearance of their humanity was a certain unique look in their eyes: a combination of determination, exhaustion, and an unfathomable, haunting quality. To look into those unwavering eyes was to see a changed individual. As "young guys," we all looked at the very old guys returning to base knowing we were looking at changed men. And that they were our future. Knowing that in just few hours, we too would be like them. We wanted to ask them the question....? But never could quite approach them. The question did not have words. What was it like? ... More accurately, how has this horror changed you? The answer was in their eyes, but intuitively, we knew the answer didn't have words ... so we never asked.
For myself after 16 straight hours of climbing sky scrapers and diving voids, going alone into burning toxic subways, entering horror as deep as anyone could...I was blown. I was a dusty, dirty, "old guy" with that look in my eyes that I had seen the night before on the faces of the "old guys" who were in before me.
Three and a half days later I walked off the line, a very, very old guy and found that not only had I changed, but so had my nation. In the last year that same wordless question has continued haunt me. We all knew going in, this experience was going to make profound changes: changes in the nation, changes in the world, and changes in our very selves. 9-11 stands as a national day of epiphany.
One of the great paradoxes of Ground Zero is that those of us who entered ground Zero and became old guys became vessels of sacred truths, but some how those sacred truths were imparted with out the words to speak them. It cannot be adequately described and shared; and some of it, out of respect for the dead, should not be shared.
What has changed? Let be clear this was not just an attack on America. This was an attack on civilization by tribal barbarians. We as a nation have faced this before.
How has this changed us? Well, … on the surface, the World Trade Center became Ground Zero.
It is no longer the center for international commerce. It is, now, sacred ground, a hallowed place, a battlefield, a final resting place for those who sacrificed themselves in the absolute belief in the theology of compassion. Compassion as a value is often seen as something lily white served up on a gilded tray. It has been my experience that compassion is most often not for the feint of heart. Compassion comes in big hands and hard work. It requires commitment and endurance. Compassion means in part to suffer and extend ones self for another. Ground Zero is a touchstone-monument to the rugged nature of compassion.
Ground Zero all three of them is a place were individuals who meant everything to their families and their communities turned up for ever missing. It is a place where unfathomable courage was again and again found in the hearts of ordinary men and women. Those deputized and those crisis conscripted volunteers. There were miracles at Ground Zero even as there were tragedies. Ground Zero holds sacred truths.
Ground Zero is as important to this nation as Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and Normandy. It is, also, I am told, the most valuable 16.4 acres on the planet …. How has this changed us?
I believe history will hold 9-11 and Ground Zero as the touch stone place where the national experience of the Twenty First century first initiated. It is the place that will continue for the next One hundred years to define what it means to be American.
In the next week, there will be many ceremonies of remembrance. In this the first year, we should not confuse honoring and grieving. We should not honor loss. We should grieve what is still fresh blood spilled. We should hold those losses in a reverence for all time. We should and must honor the knowing sacrifices of those who went into those towers even as those structures were in the process of coming down. Compassion and courage are always intertwined.
Ground Zero is full of paradoxes. We found tens of thousands of shoes, each one haunting. How did leather goods survive the same forces that vaporized human existence? In the hundreds of shoes I found, I am haunted by a pair of size 9 blue Aeresole's the very same shoes I gave my wife for Christmas last year. In the last year I have prayed there is a barefoot woman somewhere in Manhattan.
There are old guys in this room who know a simple truth. That they carry a few molecules of every individual lost at Ground Zero in the scar tissue of their lungs. They are people who know what it is to find a pair of shoes and a small faint pattern of white dust. These are individuals, who know what it is to have to crawl through that and to breath in that which swirled around us……How has that changed us? When you look at a Ground Zero responder, a NY police officer or fire fighter or crisis conscripted volunteer, you are looking at a vessel of sacred truths. We have spent a year coming to terms with that simple truth.
In a metaphorical way, our nation had the same experience. We breathed in that loss, and with it, a new spirit. We connected with those who went missing and those who held vigil for those who would and those who would not come home. As old guys the simple truth is that we carry our honored dead not just out on flag draped Stokes Litters, but out into our own lives to forever be with us…..How has that changed us? For my own self that understanding drives me to serve, not just in my own need to serve, but serve as selflessly as those we now must represent. I hope that is so for our nation and for our brotherhood. As part of that we must commit ourselves for a life time to serving their families. Just as they would have for us… if we had gone missing.
I have spent a year giving the hugs of Ground Zero trying to, in spirit, restore those whom we carried out not in our arms but in our hearts, Restore them in spirit to those whose loved ones turn up missing…. I tell you that those hugs of Ground Zero have changed me profoundly. It has deepened my sense of connectedness I am thankful for the honor and privilege of serving. I have had the privilege of seeing greatness lived out despite tragedy. At closest range, I have witnessed great strength and resilience.
How has 9-11 and all that happened at each of the three Ground Zero’s changed us?
I would like to suggest that we have changed spiritually. We are less relative then we used to be, more compassionate and more understanding. In the diversity of those who responded we have had to again affirm the American value of tolerance and the "for all" part of our national code that being "life liberty and justice 'for all.'"
After 9-11 we are more open to the value of our national experiment in advancing a moral, justice-oriented society. I believe Ground Zero is a place where two intentioned forces did battle. One is a force of evil acting in human lives. A force that aspires to be powerful…. At the same time, an intentioned force for grace sought to be there, a constant nurturing presence. I know I speak a heresy when I say this, but I do not believe God seeks to be all powerful. Instead, God intends to be only a perfect nurturing and compassionate presence that changes outcomes, and does so in the actions of hearts who live out the theology of connectedness and compassion. If God were powerful he would have had the power to stop this. I have been asked often in the last year, "Where was God? Didn’t this make you lose your faith?" In my avocation going 250 feet below ground into small tubes filled with an infinite variety of potential dangers, I don’t have the luxury of questioning that. No I went into and under a burning hell. I saw the cost of power. And all around me I saw the courageous risking all, trying to go into hell to restore grace, each operating from a sense of connectedness and compassion. We gather together to honor men who lived that out in the absolutes of their lives.
I believe our adversaries flew into Manhattan intending to leave a single monolithic statement of anger and hate that would last for all time. They did so under the ruseful guise of one of the world's great religions. They were not connected to God. They believed that their message would burn in the New York City skyline for all time. In many other places they might have been right…..
However, here in this nation they could not have been farther from the truth. Their power born of evil was met by a swarm. A swarm of individuals, each of us are not very powerful. We are not wealthy; we hold no titles and sway no influence. Simple men and women with different talents needed on that day. Each of us rushed up to the black monument and put up one little square of their own goodness. Put a little swatch of light over a vast darkness. Collectively, we buried the monolith, the dark message, and what stood instead was a single lasting example of what humanity can be when we aspire to compassion. It is my hope that that example is what changes us most.
Instead of smoking rage, we saw in the skyline twin beams of light attended to by an angel, our precious Lady Liberty carrying the torch of values that has always lit the darkest nights.
They sought to break us. They failed. They sought to divide us. I have been speaking with Faruk Mohammed the first paramedics on scene after the collapse. In [breaking] the brotherhood he and I share …, they failed. The terrorists sought to be agents of separation, wedges. Instead, they proved to be the impetus of a great coming together for grace.
They badly miscalculated, seeing our national character as weakness, not as its core strength. They tried to make war, and we tried to make the peace. They tried to make us angry. Instead, we chose sadness. They tried to make us like them, seek retribution. Instead, we sought justice. They tried to force us into lashing out. Instead, we chose compassion. Our adversaries failed. Brothers and sisters in EMS, They chose to call us, the compassionate out into the street. In the strength and resolve of our compassion they saw our courage, and ours is the lasting statement that will live in the New York skyline for all time.
How has this experience changed us? I would suggest that we view patriotism and our flag and the nation it stands for in a different light. Prior to 9-11 it was not popular to wave the flag. Patriotism and service was ….well sort of out of vogue. How often I was told that my values and those of my brothers and sisters in the rescue and EMS communities were "archaic." I was told my adherence to loyalty and a code of honor made me a dinosaur. I was once told my value system didn’t belong in the 90’s and should become more relative…… That an adherence even unto death was something the rest of the world had grown past. It was suggested that, I should come out of my feudal belief system into the modern world…. In 9-11 the values by which I and my peers, who serve in many capacities, must live to work in these disciplines, were elevated. Our nation our culture and our world came our way. We were changed as a nation by this experience.
As we go into this week of remembrance, we need to reverently cherish our losses. Honor the sacrifices individually made and now made painfully by their families and organizations. It is also appropriate to raise our flag high in the most considered forms of patriotism.
Yes, I was there. I led the team that found one of the flags at Ground Zero. It was an "Iwo Jima" moment, and to live through it changed me. There were several Iwo Jima moments at Ground Zero. I know of at least six. How it is shoes and flags are what proved to be most survivable at Ground Zero? We found our flag after a moment of greatest peril. That seems to be the 225 year nature of this experience. We found our flag after a void penetration that had an unexpected out come. I found myself face down into an over hanging precipice on the north tower. Men who did not have to, and were not trained to do so, stepped into the moment. To get out we would have to repel into the bottom of the North tower ejecta crater. From a few strands of rebar we repelled out of our tenuously hanging void into a smoke filled drop. We were alone, over extended, with only ourselves to get us out. The climb out was scary. A lay back, steel beam we intended to climb pulled out on us, and sailed passed us nearly taking us out. Once we could be seen through the smoke hundreds of workers stopped working to willed us out with there eyes. I live near an old Shaker village. I learned there that the Shakers believed that work is a prayer. That simple truth is the core subtext of working at Ground Zero.
Steel workers clamored over the edge lifting us one handed passing us out. They are physical giants, with hearts to match. At the risk to themselves, they let us know they personally wanted us out of there. When we came to the surface that steel worker who found the flag, walked to the mast that had once stood on the skyline of New York City and with a stick and some duct tape, He raised that flag. In the last Iwo Jima moment this nation experienced, there were seven white men. In this moment, an African American steel worker, surrounded by men and women of many different origins races creeds, politics raised that flag. Witnessing it, being part of it made my eyes sweat and the hair stand up on the back of my neck. My heart was bursting with pride for my nation. You see my life was coming full circle. The very first crisis I ever worked was a race riot in my own home town in 1969. Our great national experiment of continuing to try to raise its flag higher and higher in a conflicted but ever aspiring moral experiment had won. But that is only one part of my experience with the flag.
Within the hour I was blinded by a pile of dust that landed in my eyes as I crawled out of void that lit off. The smoke hurt and I landed on a piece of rebar doing some injury to a back muscle. I couldn’t see well and my lungs hurt. My team members helped me back to the plaza, to the field hospital in the street. I was well known there. My job was to go in ahead of other rescue personnel and take the up front risk so they would be safer. The doctors in the street kept patching me up giving me steroids and albuterol so I could continue to work the prayer we all held at Ground Zero. How has this changed us?
It was rough footing in some cases we had to walk beams over 30 foot holes. In a field of grey I could see very little, one little swatch of red white and blue, and from a quarter mile out. I knew if I could just get to that little dash of color I would be in American territory. I would have made it back, from what felt like, it was still enemy lines. Over the course of the next several days and year we would recover all of Ground Zero and what it means from the terrorists.
Many of us planted our personal flags that day, and we, even the most patriotic of us, see the flag now differently. I have been honored greatly in the last year but the honors that have been greatest are the private ones where veterans of WWII and from our prior conflicts come up to me and talk to me. Tell me that we are we brothers. I am honored. I can not compare our experiences fighting a World war for 5 years but I am honored, and I understand that we do share something in common. We know what our flag can mean in battle. As we plant our post 9-11 flags we need to raise it with those who have raised it before us. Who have done on foreign shores what we haven’t had to do in this land since 1812. Defend our homeland.
We look at our flag differently now and those who serve it. Our flag is a wish, it is a hope, it is a prayer, it is a milestone. If only we can reach it.
How has this experience changed us? When I returned to the Flushing Fire house where my truck was parked, I found the Fire Department had decorated my truck. There were flags on the bed liner-posts, flags on my roof rack, flags of on the back, flags on the side. My normally black F-350 was now awash in red white and blue. It felt good. I love those guys. As I got into my truck during my final good bys to come home a well dressed lady came up to me on that street cursed me and spit on me…….She was still living a life of September 10th. She did not understand what my own personal flag stands for.
How has this changed us? How often has it been in the last decades that those who go and plant our flag fight for our freedom and our values arrive home only to be disgraced? If you think that is a singular event my Godson who serves with an Air Force Special Forces unit came home from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan last week to the same experience. We are a nation that values free speech, and these episodes are examples to me that we are a nation where dissident voices are still protected. Still, it is not the act of a self proclaiming peaceful person. I would like to suggest that in our post 9-11 world, there should be the self restraint with in those who disagree with our nation. I would like to suggest that they consider not attacking or flag, burning it and spit on those who serve in a meaningless act to prove that they have a right to civil disobedience. There are some who can not understand why the flag is sacred. So be it. I honor their right to differ with me. But if I and my Godson can understand their sacred right to free speech and risk dying for it, then I think the least they can do is honor my commitment by leaving my flag unmolested. We have earned our right to cherish our flag unmolested, and our flag has earned the right to wave as free as the breeze she blows in … unmolested.
How has this changed us? On this the one year anniversary, we get to raise our flag high and be proud of what she stands for. We get to be proud that as a nation, just as our forefathers and mothers did. Just in time, we found our flag, stood together under it and planted our flag. Not the cloth symbol, but all that she stands for. We need to understand that we were attacked not for being poor global neighbors but for being a nation of visionaries: a nation that believes in the truths that we hold self evident. The right to pursue life, liberty and happiness as the individual defines it, and not as a megalomaniac with a twisted theocracy would enforce it. As long as America stands a free nation we will always be a nation that will terrify Serial killing antisocial megalomania. And the dysfunctional cultures they create. Yes we should always aspire to be a better global neighbor, but we need not apologize for having a functional culture that elevates the potential of each and every single human life.
How has this changed us? I speak around the country now. So many tough questions.
The hardest questions are the ones where people look upon me and see what I do as somehow miraculous. It is why I like speaking in fire and police stations to military units to folks who already know why. That question is why I hot-foot it back to my beloved NH mountains every time I go out. We are still a state of volunteer legislators and town meetings. We know what it is to serve our neighbors, and why. Thank you, NH, you gave me a home. I am honored by the privileged to have represented you in this national event. Each an every one of you went with me. To my brothers from New York please know you are always at home here. You represent our state motto, best. You, better then anyone, know the meaning and prices of General John Starks words, "live free or die." In a year of in which far too many precious ones have passed from us, we must honor them by leading in the quest of safeguarding freedom.
We discovered that in a modern world filled with professional services bought and paid for in a life of luxuries that our forefathers couldn’t have even imagined. We are still a nation of the people for the people and by the people; the minute men are alive and well today. God Bless them all.
In the end, I think we all came out of 9-11 as old guys. We were bloodied, the fabric of our communities torn. The dust of horrors descended on us all. We worked together despite grieving. All of us in the world gave something. Blood a check, an idea, an affirmation a prayer. Just as the firemen lined up to pass Father Mike to risk doing the not so fun work that needed to be done, we as a nation lined up and started serving.
How has this experience changed us? ... There is a great irony in search and rescue. We search for the physical person in hopes of bringing them home. What is ironic is that long before you find their physical existence, you start to discover things about those you are going in search of. I have learned much in the last year about those we went in search of.
And, from what I have learned … there is no greater tribute we could possibly give than to pledge our selves to service: to re-stitch the fabric where it has been torn, to stand with those strong enough to grieve, to fix what is broken, to build a better, more connected world.
The question turned inward……How has this changed you? I have spent a year struggling to find words for what is essentially a sacred silence. The answer perhaps is not best found in words. I found my answer in the intangible sacred truths residing in the eyes of the dusty dirty sweaty exhausted old guys who went before me. I found a unique redoubled humanity, a determination that defies all odds, an unfathomable haunting. I found wordless deep meanings of what it is to know Ground Zero, in those the intangibles, in those eyes are what Ground Zero means.
Let that meaning change you. Let that meaning change this nation. May that meaning … change this world….
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass, Bodies disappear; But spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not, and we not know of ….
"Heart drawn to see where by and by, and by whom great things were suffered and done unto them, shall come to this deathless field , to ponder and dream ; and low the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom and the power of the vision pass into their souls
"There is no greater reward of service. To live far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of grace – to give life’s best, for such high sake, that it shall be found again and again, unto eternal life."