By Chuck Wright / Herald Forum
On this the 20th year after the mass murder and suicidal attack on our country on Sept. 11, 2001, I am opening up parts of a journal I kept as I worked at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., from September through November that year as a mental health professional volunteer, in hopes it will shed some light on some of those who dared to freely give their time and skills during that tumultuous time.
Sept. 22, 2001: I am now located in the Pentagon. An Army sergeant told us that American Airlines Flight 77 disintegrated as it crashed into the building killing all 64 people on board and another 125 who were inside the building.
Highest ranking officer that was murdered was Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maud. Dana Falkenbert, 3 years old, was the youngest murdered, and 71-year-old John D. Yamnicky was the oldest.
Oct. 6: Our three-person team’s medical professional is scheduled to go home tomorrow, so in line with policy I asked her if she wanted to be debriefed. Since we have been working peers for the last few days Janis (not her real name) voiced she didn’t need one. I was ready to give into her rejection, but I felt by her voice inflections she would if I insisted. I did and she agreed to talk with me about her experiences.
I asked her what part of her involvement had affected her the most. Janis responded by telling me she interviewed a man who was in New York at the time of the attack. This man helped God knows how many people to escape the area. Then when the first tower started collapsing he ran into a building. After being in that structure for a short time it collapsed and he was trapped for two days.
The man was rescued and decided to travel down here to the Pentagon to see if he could be of any assistance.
After she finished I let the silence take over and as I did Janis’ eyes welled with tears and then she advised me about a month ago her doctor told her she has a rare neurological disease and only has three years to live.
Janis was told about a new type of chemotherapy, which “might slow down” her fatal disease, but cannot stop it. She must go to treatment every fourth week at a cost of $5,000 a visit. Janis advised her husband he needs to divorce her before her (their) medical bills really get up there and they end up losing their house and other possessions.
Since being here she has spent a lot of nights thinking about her own death and how it will affect her husband and her two children. I felt myself tearing up, but she didn’t notice since she was now crying and looking down at the floor. I thought to myself what a gift Janis, my working peer, has just shared with me. Her most personal pains, but she was willing to share them with me. I felt I did something good by “making” her go through this debriefing. Now Janis is a person I respect and she was a great mentor for me when it came to learning about death and dying. I felt honored to be a small part of her life.
Janis came out of her tearful state and said her husband and two children did not want her to come down here, since they were jealous of the time she was giving to these hurting people. But she told her family she must go to help those victims. She has so little time left to give and she can give now to these hurting Americans. They apparently understood because they let her go.
When she first arrived here she could use her pointing finger to push an elevator button, but now she has to use her knuckles to do the same job. So she is deteriorating faster than she thought she would.
My peer noted that no other worker knows about this and she wanted it to stay that way. Before we closed Janis, with a large smile on her face, yet tears of joy in her eyes, said her husband is supportive and that is what helps her. We hugged each other and then she left. But Janis left behind a man who just witnessed a real humanitarian.
I just hope when my time comes to die that I can be as courageous! Come to think about it, Janis did not leave, because I know that she will always be a part of me. And for that I am grateful.
A postscript: When I returned home to Mill Creek, I knew psychologically I would never be able to leave the Pentagon behind.
Chuck Wright is a state-licensed mental health counselor and certified traumatic stress specialist. He lives in Mill Creek.