By Susan D. Henson
Like many people, Sept. 11, 2001, changed my life. My memory is irrevocably imprinted by what happened when a group of people showed us just how much they hate America. Thousands of people died in the attacks, but I walked away uninjured from my desk in the Pentagon the day the plane crashed into it, wreaked a path of destruction like a hate-filled fiery ax and stopped just short of my office. My colleagues and I were just 20 feet away from being part of a terrorist’s body count.
So many people try to avoid anything that reminds them of that horrific day, but I don’t dwell on the bad. The important thing is what I learned from my experiences on Sept. 11. The worst day of your life can deliver the best life lessons. The trick is being willing to look for them.
First, small, seemingly insignificant choices can end up making a life-and-death difference later. In a crisis, your choices will be based on what you’re trained to do. As those of us who volunteered to help with triage that day did what we could, everyone else was told to leave as quickly as possible. Evacuating the building never crossed my mind – 17 years of Navy training prepared me for that day. You’ve probably heard the saying, “How you train is how you fight.” It’s true. In the fog of confusion during a crisis, your body and mind revert to what they know. Freeze, fight or fly, every situation is different, and our reactions vary. While you can’t possibly get training for everything that might happen, small choices like a CPR qualification could mean life for one person. Lesson 1: Habits and training take the place of thinking when your thinking isn’t clear.
Of course everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I’m action-oriented, organized, resourceful, tenacious and far from shy. Some people may see these qualities as less than desirable, and sometimes I feel that way, too. Whether strengths or weaknesses, all these things helped me take action to help triage and evacuate survivors on Sept. 11. Yet when the call came for volunteers to look for survivors, I knew my body frame was much less capable than others of breaking down doors and carrying people to safety. You have to know your strengths and use them to the team’s advantage. At the same time, realize when you’re over your head, and don’t be afraid to let others step up. Ultimately, it’s not about what you do alone. It’s about what you can contribute to the team. What one person lacks another has in big spades and shiny diamonds. Lesson 2: Especially in a crisis, teamwork – not “me work” — is what gets the job done.
Our pick-up triage team started off trying to calm people who were injured and in shock. Many people were wandering in a fog of incomprehension Some were missing shoes; some had debris matted in their hair. Some wore the remains of crisp business clothes and uniforms that were ripped and covered in filth. Some were bleeding from wounds caused by falling rubble, or suffered while trying to save colleagues. Others were in shock with burns so bad they didn’t realize large patches of their skin were missing. The Pentagon medical clinic staff set up quickly, and we followed their instructions without hesitation. The ones who led that day were first responders. I saw many junior enlisted service members giving firm and concise direction to senior officers, who unquestioningly followed. Age and experience only count in the situations to which they apply. There’s an appropriate time for protocol. Sept. 11 was not it, and everyone knew it. Whether fighting fires, saving lives or directing survivors to safe exit routes, those who were trained and ready to do their jobs were in charge — regardless or rank, age or experience level. Lesson 3: There’s no room for sparring egos in a life or death fight.
It’s interesting that the side of the Pentagon that was hit faces Arlington National Cemetery, just across the road. It serves as a reminder that I swore to give my life in the service of my country, and since the attack I’ve known the full gravity of my decision. Other people who died that day didn’t swear an oath, but they still paid the greatest price for our freedom. It isn’t just service members, government employees and contractors who give their lives anymore. The number of terror attack survivors continues to grow — a group that can include anyone from anywhere. While I believe we should live our lives fully and without fear, we must also remain aware that simply being an American carries with it a degree of responsibility. This is true, whether we like it or not. Lesson 4: We are all defenders of each other’s freedom by virtue of being an American.
While Sept. 11 was the worst day of my life, I choose to focus on how it changed my life for the better. It changed my priorities and definitions of many things — heroes, sacrifice, courage. It made me realize I was stronger than I thought. That family, friendship and love are of the utmost importance. And that God gave me courage, wisdom and strength when I most needed it. I am so very thankful to have been part of a team that made a life-or-death difference to one woman, an Army officer and mother, who — I found out a year later through a newspaper article — survived. Many people played a part in saving lives that day through split-second decisions. People such as those who fought the terrorists on the last plane and chose to die in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow the deaths of more innocent people. Those first responders in New York, some who gave their lives to save others in the Twin Towers. It’s normal to be scared; it’s courageous to be scared and still take action. Lesson 5: It is on our worst days when we are most often at our best.
I sometimes think about whether I made the right decisions that day but then remember there’s no value in revisiting an old rabbit hole. Who knows what would have happened had any of us made different choices that day. What happened on Sept. 11 is in the past and no amount of thinking or wishing can change the outcome. What we have the ability to change is how we respond to it. Lesson 6: Regret is wasted energy. Learn from the past to live more fully in the present and create the tomorrow you want.
We Americans, civilian and military, may have been strangers on Sept. 11, but we were on the same team. Anyone who’s been in a terrorist attack knows you don’t survive it alone. You combine your strengths and get through it together. And you rebuild together. None of us has superhero powers, yet a niece once told me that I was part of a team with super powers – the U.S. Navy. I like that idea of a super team. None of us can do it alone. Together, though, we are an unstoppable force capable of accomplishing anything, even overcoming suicidal terrorists to ensure that American freedom lives on. Lesson 7: Fear can be a stumbling block or a starting block. Which do you choose?
**Photos belong to the U.S. Navy or are used by permission of Suzette Marie-Catherine Johnson-Kettenhofen.