You have given me a great responsibility: to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are.” ~ Jimmy Carter
Over these past months, I have been afforded opportunities to take part in numerous newspaper and radio interviews. All have pertained to the story of 9/11 and the post days of recovery. These conversations enabled me to share my thoughts and voice my beliefs. Additionally, they have allowed me to discuss the plight of the first responders, who continue to carry not only emotional scars, but physical illnesses as well.
During my most recent newspaper interview, the journalist asked if I had found any closure from the effects of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Without a moment’s hesitation, I politely replied, “Closure is a term too often used as it relates to trauma. It is terminology I don’t quite comprehend.” At my reply, the reporter seemed perplexed, so I elaborated.
The word “closure” is defined as: a feeling that an emotional or traumatic experience has been resolved. Personally, I cannot find a way to resolve the events and aftermath of 9/11. Any resolution may feel as if one is minimizing and forgetting the devastation that transpired. Closure abandons the memories of lives lost and the brethren who bravely rose to the occasion.
In my years serving in law enforcement, I never once witnessed a parent’s ability to find closure after losing a child. Nor have I ever heard a crime victim express a complete sense of solace after experiencing a horrific tragedy that left them emotionally and/or physically scarred. The sorrow felt in the initial moments of loss permeated a part of them that could never be fully healed. Instead, these victims adapted to live with the grief suffered. Some have even found a way to move forward by serving on behalf of others. In their time of great despair, they journeyed and found a new sense of purpose. They did not allow the tragedy to define them.
When I listen to the stories told by the surviving 9/11 emergency responders, I hear similar tales from one and all. They describe the events of the day. They share facts about where they were when they first heard the call to help. They share the helplessness felt as the tragedy transpired. And each relays the story with the same haunting tone and a stare that seems focused on a distant place and time. These wonderful men and women carry battle scars that have not yet healed. In the twelve years since that infamous day, approximately 1,300 responders and recovery workers have succumbed to illness. With so many now gone, I am left with all too many unanswered questions.
Perhaps due to training and personal backgrounds, those who serve in law enforcement and the military perceive themselves to carry a greater burden of responsibility. When appointed to the position, each swears an oath–one held sacred to the soul. In time of great danger, we are the first to arrive at the scene and the last to leave. Regardless of the situation or circumstances, we are required to muster courage and act in the best interest of those in need. We are looked to not only for protection, but for answers to all of the burning questions. The mindset is clear. We are programmed to be the modern day warrior–prepared to defend, rescue, and recover.
Emergency responders are sometimes considered to be the tertiary (third tier) victims of a crime or tragedy. These tertiary victims become another statistic of the collateral damage sustained. In contemplating the long-term effects of 9/11, I often question whether the burden of responsibility was too much to bear. Was what the responders witnessed too painful for even them to recall? Had the remaining questions tainted their shattered hearts and broken their spirits of the will to sustain their own lives?
As a child, my dear dad often shared words of wisdom regarding his moral center and the duty to his fellow man. He would read from the Bible and then express his interpretation of the parable. Once, after he read the Ten Commandments, I lamented that I would never be able to remember all of the rules. I was a mere child and not yet fully aware of God and what was expected of me. In a moment of reflection, Dad just looked at me and smiled. He said, “If you only remember to never intentionally hurt another human being, then you are living up to the laws of God.”
In the paradox of the first responders rushing toward the burning buildings or the gaping hole of a landfill, they themselves fell victim to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. They, along with the survivors and our nation, watched in horror as the events unfolded and all were momentarily rendered helpless to prevent, protect, and aid.
A former colleague, who was responsible for the collection of all evidence at the three crash sites, was the first person from my agency that I confided in about 9/11 and my concern that I was affected both psychologically and physiologically. During that conversation, I inquired what his initial thoughts were when he arrived at the scenes. He responded, “My immediate impression reflected words often heard while attending church services: Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
When I consider his words and the stories shared by fellow responders, I am convinced that those of us impacted suffer from the burden of responsibility. We have taken it upon ourselves to carry the encumbrance of all that should have been done. Even though these thoughts of conjecture bare no fact, they have somehow embedded themselves into the already troubled minds and hearts of the responders. But we were not alone on 9/11. We were aided by countless civilians who rose up to safeguard others too. Based on this awareness, it is my hope that there will soon be a therapeutic remedy to help eradicate the deep-seeded sorrow felt for not living up to our perceived burden of responsibility and the motto of “first do no harm.”