THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF 9/11: RECOLLECTIONS

Five years ago, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be interviewed by Adam Zeren from Channel 8 news about a topic long since forgotten. Somewhere around 9AM Adam called me and, almost screaming, announced the interview was postponed, told me what was happening and directed that I turn on my television immediately! I did so.

My tears fell as the towers fell. Being a Navy Chaplain, I quickly went into general quarters or battle stations mode, put on my uniform and headed for the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where I was sure the wounded would soon arrive. But there were few survivors. Around 1900, I headed home.

As I came through the door the phone rang. It was the office of the U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains notifying me I was now on active duty and under orders to report immediately to the Navy Annex overlooking the Pentagon. To reach the Annex I had to drive past the crash site. My tears flowed again. If you served in the military you understand. The Pentagon was still aflame. My Pentagon. There it was with crumbled, burning, smoking walls and the remains of too many victims yet inside.

At the Chief’s office Casualty Assistance Calls Officer teams formed. Each team had three members: a representative of the missing service member’s command, an expert in military casualty procedures and a chaplain to provide pastoral care.

By the time all the teams were organized, assignments made and briefed, it was late in the evening. My team reached our first house around midnight. It was the home of an officer from the Navy Command Center. That was the spot where the plane hit full force. There was no official word yet whether this officer had survived the attack. The family prayed that perhaps he had stepped out for a minute and was alive somewhere inside, under the rubble awaiting rescue that would come quickly.

This young officer and his family were devout members of their faith group. He taught kindergarten in his church’s religious school. For many years he and his wife struggled to conceive. Finally, a daughter was born to them, the answer to their prayers. In September 2001 this beautiful, sweet child was six years old.

In the days before 9/11 this officer’s family was already severely stressed. His grandmother had suffered a stroke. She lived overseas. The officer’s mother left immediately to go care for her mom. That was September 9th. And just before that tragedy, the officer’s wife learned that her aunt and uncle had been murdered. The funeral was scheduled for September 14th. Now this! There was more to come. In the first three days following 9/11 two other uncles sustained heart attacks. A stroke, two heart attacks, two murders and the attack on the Pentagon! My casualty assistance calls team would spend a great deal of time at this officer’s home. We were there both day and night.

On September 11, the officer’s mother became desperate to return here from her mother’s home overseas. But no flights could land at American airports. A member of my CACO team got on his cell phone and called a Naval Air Reserve buddy. The result? A cargo plane was diverted from a mission in Eastern Europe, flown to pick up the terribly distressed mother and bring her to Andrews Air Force Base. It was a very proud moment for the team.

On September 18, in the middle of Rosh Hashanah morning services, the call came informing me that this officer’s DNA had been identified. He was now officially declared dead. I was to proceed immediately with the two other CACO team members to make the official notification. A postscript: in December 2001, the officer’s beautiful, young daughter, was one of two children of 9/11 victims chosen to light the National Christmas tree.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I served commands as well as individual families. One was the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station, Washington, DC. NAVCOMTELSTA had three offices at the Pentagon. In one of them, fourteen personnel were assigned, most of them in their early twenties. They worked together, lived in the barracks together and socialized together. Of the fourteen, seven lived and seven died the morning of 9/11. Each sailor who survived spoke with me about what had happened and of his or her survivor’s guilt. Each one sought to work through with me what special mission God had in mind for him or for her going forward for the rest of one’s life. Each story would rivet you to your seats. There is no time now. Perhaps another day.

On October 11, 2001 the Pentagon held a memorial service, 30 days after the attack, in my mind marking the end of shloshim. The chiefs of chaplains for the Army, Navy and Air Force participated as did the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Muslim chaplain and me. I represented the Jewish community. I sat directly behind and within three feet of President and Mrs. Bush and General and Mrs. Myers. I can tell you how plainly visible was their deep down mourning for the fallen.

By December, 2001 the Navy sent me to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton California. All Marine chaplains are Navy chaplains assigned to Marine commands. I was ordered to a MAG, Marine Air Group 39. It contained four squadrons, a total of 9,000 Marines, most of whom were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. On the way to Pendleton I memorized the base maps, the squadron missions and the names and faces of the senior people in each chain of command. There was no choice but to hit the ground running. There would be no time for getting adjusted. The pressure was intense.

My 9/11 related commitments continued over that first year and beyond. Even after retiring from the Navy in 2002, I got orders in October, 2003, to head for the Iraqi theatre. My presence was needed to cover Jewish personnel attached to Expeditionary Strike Group One, then protecting the Southern Pipe lines. My orders would keep me in theater for the High Holy Days and Sukkot., a short period of mostly unrelenting tension. How stunning, High Holy Day prayers in Babylonia!

Obviously 9/11 is a defining event in our nation’s history and in each of our lives. The 9/11 story of every person in this room is sacred and worthy of telling, hearing and recording. As citizens of the United States, we are all shipmates in a way. We shared the shock of the worst attack on our soil since the Civil War. As Jews, we endure an added level of horror when we consider that the hijackers and those who sent them want both America and Israel destroyed.

Our enemies hijacked our airplanes and the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children on 9/11. They also hijacked our innocence, and they tried as well to hijack our sense of the glory and purpose of God and our faith. They failed to do so then, and they must always fail to do so. They are in the wrong. They are of the children of darkness. You and I must serve bravely and wisely and determinedly each day as members of the children of light, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim or of any other faith or none at all. Let the bearers of light respond faithfully to that challenge we encounter this Shabbat and again on Yom Kippur; an ancient challenge from which we must never walk away:

And God said: I call as witness against you this
day the heavens and the earth as I place before
you the blessed path to life and the cursed path
to death. Choose life! that you and your children
may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Ladies and Gentlemen, let us answer as one that we do indeed choose life!! We shall turn away from those who affirm the cursed path that leads to death. We shall choose to advance on the blessed path that sanctifies life. Yes, we gather here this night to shout yet again that WE CHOOSE LIFE!!!