“I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders, looking up at the Twin Towers before the antenna was added to the north one. There they were, way up in the sky.
“My dad always talked to us about the importance of service and integrity. I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1989. I served six years, transitioned to the reserves, and joined the Virginia State Police.
“When 9/11 happened, I was one of the first troopers on scene at the Pentagon. It was surreal. So much of it was a blur, but there are so many moments I will never, ever forget. Another first responder and I had just pulled someone out of the rubble. Each of us grabbed an arm and literally pulled the person out. I remember stepping aside and needing to catch my breath. We had so much gear on and we were working non-stop. I hunched over a little, and I looked down at my shoes. They were covered in grass blades, and mud, and dust, and just muck. We take so much pride in the uniform, and I looked down and thought, ‘My shoes look like crap.’ And there in the middle of the chaos, I started cleaning my shoes. And then I heard something. I looked over, and there was a woman face down in the debris, but she was looking at me. I could only tell by a little color on her face that it was a black woman. But her body had been so badly burnt, I knew there was no way she was going to make it. And there I was, a moment before doing something so frivolous as cleaning my shoes, and I realized just how truly helpless I was to affect her life. There was absolutely nothing I could do to save her.
“Beyond what I’d seen at the Pentagon that day, being a kid from Brooklyn, the attack hit me hard for a multitude of reasons. It just… it crushed me. It was ’01, so it was really before smart phones and I didn’t know the extent of damage until I got home, 37 hours later. I didn’t know the status of my older brother who was NYPD. I wasn’t surprised to hear he was one of the first responders at Ground Zero. We didn’t talk for nearly two weeks after 9/11. We knew the other was okay, and we were all-consumed with the pace of emergency operations. When I finally got to talk to him, we didn’t say much. Just ‘Man I’m glad you’re alive.’ I told him to stay frosty, be safe, and that I was going off to war.
“I was still a reservist at the time. I knew the clock was ticking before I was going to be called up. And I’ll be honest, I was chomping at the bit. I wanted to go in defense of this great nation. Six days later, I got the call. I was going to be active duty for two years. Everybody got the call. And so we deployed, almost right away. For lack of a better term, it was the perfect storm of negativity in my life. The towers had just fallen. The Pentagon was almost completely destroyed. We’d lost so many people. I had five month old twin baby girls I was leaving at home. My dad had cancer. But like I said, everyone was called.
“Not too long into my first deployment, I got the Red Cross Message. When I talked to my older brother he told me that if I had anything I needed to say to the old man before he passed, I needed to come home. The Air Force treated me incredibly well. They flew me home to say goodbye to my dad. And when I saw him, true to form, he said, ‘What are you doing here? You got a job to do. We are at war. I will be here when you get back. I want you to go fight for our country.’ 9/11 was personal for him; I think for all Americans. So I respected his wishes. I went back. And one week later he passed away. And once again, the Air Force flew me home, this time to put my dad in a box.
“The pain of war was so much. I’d lost my dad. My baby girls, who each weighed less than a 5 pound bag of sugar when they were born, didn’t know me when I got home. Six weeks after I returned from the first deployment, I went right back. It was 2002 then, and I took my team downrange as a squad leader. It was a particularly dangerous time to be there and doing what we were doing. I am so proud of my guys; we all came home.
“With my time spent active duty and in the reserves, I’ve served 27 years now. The Air Force’s core values are Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do – all things my dad taught us, and all things the Virginia State Police hold dear as well. That second one is really powerful to me. Those of us who wear ‘the uniform’ – and I mean the military, fire department, police, any sort of first responder – we believe in service. That is so personal for me. And I’m not just talking about service to the great men and women of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I’m a God-fearing Christian; I’m talking about serving my brothers and sisters in Christ; my fellow human beings. I want people to remember that the folks that wear the uniforms are the ones who are literally running into the bullets, the fires, and even the Twin Towers, when everyone else is running away. And every day, there are those who wear the uniform that are willing to lay down their life for complete strangers. We are willing to fight for you. We are willing to die for you – to protect you. And I hope we as a nation never, ever lose sight of that.”
Pentagon photo credit: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images