Starting with its November/December 2001 issue, Evansville Living shared Tri-State residents’ stories in a series called “From This Day Forward.” Newscasters, families, a FEMA search-and-rescue member, reporters, military personnel, and everyday citizens shared how 9/11 immediately affected their lives. Here are their perspectives, appearing digitaly for this first time since their original press dates, from the aftermath of that sunny, summer-like morning morning that would be forever marked by immeasurable tragedy, surging patriotism, and tales of heroism.
November/December 2001 — From This Day Forward: Marti Vanada
By Jane McManus
“There was nothing. There was death. Only death.”
Warrick County resident Marti Vanada spent eight days at ground zero of the World Trade Center disaster in New York. Along with her certified search and rescue dog “polly,” Vanada was one of more than 60 members of the Indiana Federal Emergency Management Agency Task Force that traveled to Manhattan.
Vanada witness the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history. She had 10 years of disaster experience and training, but was unprepared for the complete devastation she found in New York. Vanada suffered no physical injuries, but the experience left an emotional impact. Yet, Vanada said if given the choice, she would do it again. No question.
Vanada’s experience began on Tuesday, Sept. 11, at 9:40 a.m. when she was picking up her nine-month-old granddaughter and got an alert she could be going to New York. Less than two hours later, Vanada and Polly were on the road to Indianapolis. There they would meet up with the other FEMA team members, one of 28 teams from around the country hurrying to Manhattan. Vanada’s team, including three other search-and-rescue dogs, filled three tour buses and was accompanied by three flatbed trucks filled with supplies and extrication gear.
When the team reached Manhattan the day after the disaster, they were taken to a large convention center three miles from ground zero, where there were other FEMA teams and National Guardsmen.
Two sleeping tends were set up for Vanada’s team; each tent had room for 25 people. The group was divided into day and night shift6s to provide 24-hour availability.
Walking into the disaster scene for the first time, Vanada said the sight of so much wreckage was overwhelming.
“how to put it in words,” Vanada said. “You almost lose your breath. I really didn’t expect the kind of death that there was. We all figured there would be voids and live rescues.”
Vanada said the wreckage was spread over six acres, with ash and rubble piled stories high.
“Our reason for existence is to go into the disaster area and extract live victims,” Vanada said. “We didn’t have normal duties in this one. The devastation was so great.”
“Everything was totally incinerated,” she said. “Ashes. No black smudges from soot or anything. Just ashes.”
That first night, Vanada, along with Polly, had to climb to the top of a. rubble pile using a ladder.
“Once I reached the top and looked down, there were probably 300 firemen working on the bucket brigade,” Vanada said.
The bucket brigades were the main rescue effort, with volunteers filling containers with rubble and passing them out by a chain of hands. Polly, a six-year-old border collie/golden retriever mix, was the only search-and-rescue dog at that site.
When the firemen heard what could be someone trapped alive beneath the rubble, Polly would be brought in. Polly’s job was to sniff out any survivors and to also find the dead. But with so many other humans in close proximity, differentiating scents was difficult for the dog, and Marti would ask the firemen to step back.
“They didn’t want to leave their work that long,” Vanada said.
The enormous pile of rublle never stopped smoking the entire time she was there, according to Vanada.
“It was like going to an inferno,” she said.
One of Vanada’s team members received face and hand burns when a piece of concrete was lifted up and the oxygen that rushed in created a flare-up.
Vanada said the most difficult thing was realizing as the days went by that no live victims were going to be found.
“Everybody was still hoping, but we were beyond that,” she said.
Vanada and Polly found two bodies. At one point, Vanada said her dog, which barks at a live find and paws the ground when finding a cadaver, was sniffing and scratching at as many as 10 spots.
“All I could figure from that is there was so much scent, that (Polly) couldn’t pinpoint it,” Vanada said, adding there was a strong smell of decaying bodies at the scene.
Vanada and her team members operated on little sleep, with their shifts sometimes running 14 hours. Even more exhausted were the 50 dogs at the scene, Vanada said, who were constantly working to find bodies, without facemasks to filter out the dust and dirt.
Vanada said one day after looking for bodies all day, Polly “just shut down.”
After eight days, the team left New York, travelling back to Indianapolis. Vanada said she gave Polly her own seat on the bus, where the dog slept nearly the entire trip.
In Indianapolis, the group was met with a hero’s welcome. But Vanada said she doesn’t feel heroic.
“It was heartwarming,” Vanada said of the outpouring of support the team received, “but at the same time, we didn’t do anything. We’re trained to find live victims and we didn’t do that.”
The Indianapolis welcome took place on Monument Circle, with more than 3,000 people cheering the team, some waving from open windows.
“We were an extension of their arms and legs,” Vanada said, when asked why she thought there was such an outpouring of support for the FEMA team. “We were able to do what they weren’t able to do. Everyone wants to help and no one can.”
In addition to a hero’s welcome in Indianapolis, the city of Evansville declared Sept. 29 as “Marti Vanada and Search Dog Polly Day,” with Vanada receiving a certificate during a ceremony at Wesselman Woods.
By the time she returned to her rural Newburgh home, Vanada was physically exhausted. But being at ground zero of the World Trade Center disaster took more of a psychological than physical toll.
“I think the physical is gone, but the emotional is there. And I think it will be for a long time,” Vanada said, her voice breaking. “That’s going to affect me more. And I’m real squishy-hearted.”
When asked if she would again participate in such an enormous disaster rescue effort, Vanada, a mother and grandmother, became emotional.
“Yes,” she said, choking back tears. “For the hope of being able to save somebody and to put closure on it for families.”
Time has helped Vanada deal with the sadness and frustration of not finding anyone alive at the disaster scene. Friends and family have also provided support. Vanada took a camera to New York, but after picking up her pictures, waited for a friend to view them with her.
“I couldn’t look at them alone,” she said.
January/February 2002 — From This Day Forward: Local Media
By Bill Jackson
Small rivers of blood coursed down his face, paled by a heavy coat of dust that covered him. He looked like a refugee from a midnight horror movie.
But the horror was real. The man was fleeing the carnage of the World Trace Center. When a reporter asked how he was doing, his strides slowed as he groped for a rational answer amid the insanity that surrounded him. “Still around, man,” he finally replied, “still around.” Then he hurried down the street and disappeared into the gray cloud that engulfed Manhattan.
It was not the most dramatic moment the American media recorded on Sept. 11, 2001. Who will forget the mind-numbing scene as a winged silver bullet smashed through the WTC south tower and erupted into a monstrous orange and black fireball?
In a way, the ghostly New Yorker articulated the gritty determination of a nation reeling from the worst terrorist attack in history. We’re “still around, man, still around.”
In the weeks that followed the attacks on American landmarks — no, on America’s heart and soul — we turned to the media for information, for support, for clues about who had done this terrible thing and why. We looked inward, and what we saw were good people — imperfect people, as in the rest of the world, but good people generally trying to do the right thing. We saw a nation that is an amalgam of races and religions, millions of Muslims among them, living in relative harmony. And we wondered: Why shouldn’t others emulate us instead of attacking us?
Television, newspapers, magazines, and radio made Herculean efforts to provide the information we wanted and needed. Television networks that raced to 24-hour news lost $500 million in advertising revenue in the first few days after the attacks.
(The Internet lagged behind. Seven weeks later, a Web search for Sept. 11 yielded 5,182,805 hits — but the first 200 yielded no information about the terrorist attacks.)
Seldom has TV offered such drama. We sat mesmerized watching United Flight 175 rip through the south tower again and again. We watched the massive search for survivors. We saw the agony on the faces of hundreds of people desperately hunting for loved ones. We saw the tears of reporters covering the tragedy, and many of us cried with them.
Bob Freeman was getting dressed for work after catching his station’s early newscast and figuring it was “just sort of a run-of-the-mill average kind of day.” Paul McAuliffe was standing naked in the locker room of the YMCA after an early-morning run. Brad Byrd had been asleep — “Monday Night Football” had delayed his newscast the night before — and was awakened by a phone call from his wife. Nicole Minton was at home anticipating a later shift. Randy Wheeler was in a Hilton Head, S.C., gift shop.
That’s when they heard about the attacks that rocked the world. That’s when they and scores of other local news people immediately started gearing up for intensive coverage that eventually stretched across the Tri-State and to New York itself. For some, that meant 16-hour days. For many, it meant challenging decisions on what to print or broadcast. For all, it meant unusual — if not unprecedented — cooperation among the local media.
By the time Freeman reached WFIE-TV, where he has been news director for almost nine years, he knew four hijacked planes had crashed. “I was scared,” he said. “It was like, ‘What is going on? What do we do? What’s next?’ That’s the way the day started. And from then on, even through today, in the recesses of my mind I’m still asking, ‘What’s next? What do we do?’”
Kriste Bullard, WFIE “Newswatch Sunrise” co-anchor/reporter, recalls that one of the first stories she did as her station set out to “tell the local story” involved a local firefighter. “He pulled his fire truck out on the highway between Mount Vernon and Evansville and had a flag on top of the fire truck and just sat there and waved at people who drove by because he wanted to show his patriotism. So many people came together and wanted to do something, anything, to show their patriotism in every way imaginable. There were so many stories.”
Bullard followed another story all the way to New York. She had covered the efforts of two churches in Mount Vernon, Indiana, her hometown, to collect relief supplies and deliver them to New York. Bullard told her news director, “It’s my story. I want to go.”
She was a little concerned, though. “Emotionally, it was just so touch (after the attacks), and when you were glued to the TV all week and listening to those survivors and people who lost their families in the World Trade Center … my husband finally said, ‘You have to stop watching this,’ because I would just be at home crying.”
She said she saw the best and worst of humanity in New York. “I saw the worst by looking at that mound of rubble in the financial district, but I dealt with the good side of it, of humanity, of all the relief efforts, and the people who were coming together to help out.”
When McAuliffe, editor of The Evansville Courier & Press, arrived at his office around 9 a.m. after his run at the Y, he suggested printing an Extra. Publisher Vince Vawter agreed and called in production and circulation supervisors to see if it was doable. A decision was made within minutes to go ahead.
Within three hours, an eight-page Extra started rolling off the newspaper’s big blue flexographic press. When trucks started delivering them to single-copy sales locations, people were waiting to buy them. Gone, however — a modern-day concession to safety concerns — were the young hawkers of another era yellowing, “EXTRA! EXTRA!” on street corners.
The entire run of 30,000 copies sold out. It was the first Extra to be printed in Evansville in decades, perhaps since another infamous date: Dec. 7, 1941.
The Courier & Press continued heavy coverage with eight additional pages the following day, four the next, and a 12-page section called “In Remembrance” on Sunday. News space is expensive, but McAuliffe said costs for the extra coverage have not been figured. “It was one of those things where you say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do it.’”
Minton is executive producer for the WTVW-TV news department. She describes the moments after the trade center disaster began to unfold: “Quickly the phone calls started; the newsroom wanting to know how quickly I could be there, my mother just needing to hear my voice, and then a terrified aunt. In the frenzy of getting ready for work, and the shock that these events were more than a terrible accident, I had forgotten that my cousin worked near the World Trade Center. My terrified aunt reminded me. At that moment I fear this national tragedy was about to become a personal tragedy for my family.” (She learned later her cousin was OK.)
WEHT-TV also was looking for the local story, veteran anchor Byrd said. “This was a story that even though it happened in New York, even though it had obvious international overtones, it reached right here in the cradle of the Tri-State.”
The first week was the most difficult. “Like everyone else, we were crawling before we were walking,” explained Byrd, who I starting his 25th year as a WEHT anchor. “This was a story that was changing by the hour.”
Small stories sometimes painted vivid contrasts. On the same night WEHT aired a report about students at Christ the King Elementary School initiating a bake sale to help New York survivors — (they later gave the Red Cross a check for $1,003) — a network showed students in religious schools in Pakistan being taught to hate America.
Local radio also gave extensive coverage to the attacks. WIKY, for example, plugged into the Associated Press radio service and ran it “wall to wall” with local “drop-ins” at the top and bottom of each hour. Wheeler, longtime WIKY news director, was vacation at Hilton Head when he saw a TV report on the disaster. He and his wife quickly headed back to Evansville — after he interviewed patrons in a restaurant for the reactions.
As President Bush talked of a new kind of war, local news departments were confronted with a new type of story. Anthrax scares forced the media here to assess how those scares would be handled. The first — the emergency shutdown of a West Side shopping center because of a suspicious letter received from Nigeria — received extensive coverage. “People at that point in time were very scared, very anxious about the anthrax threat, and we gave that maximum live coverage,” Byrd said.
WFIE and WTVW also carried live reports of the incident. (Freeman said he received positive feedback but also got heat from some viewers — for interrupting “Wheel of Fortune.”) The Courier & Press followed up the next morning. But when scares materialized at more locations, some news departments began to have second thoughts. “We decided after the first batch of anthrax threats that this is a lot like a bomb threat,” Freeman said, “and if we want to we can have one on every newscast — you know, anthrax threat du jours.” Freeman and Byrd said their stations decided to evaluate threats on a case-by-case basis.
A survey of local coverage over several weeks after the attacks showed threads of commonality:
1. An usually cooperation developed among the media to promote community events. “We dropped the competitive shield,” Byrd said. News organizations heavily promoted a Red Cross blood drive at Roberts Stadium. TV stations sponsored “An Evening Together” at Crossroads Christian Church. WEHT and The Courier & Press sponsored a town hall forum aired on public television station WNIN. And the media spotlighted numerous fund drives for New York relief.
2. Local stations offered extensive opportunities for the public to comment on matters related to the attacks. WTVW solicited on-line votes on such questions as whether viewers agreed with the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and whether their travel plans had changed. WEHT initiated a weekly “Terrorism Talkback” program featuring a rotating panel of eight experts answering view questions. WFIE conducted a series of town hall meetings around the Tri-State and also developed “Proud to Be an American” bumps — short segments before and after commercials. The NBC station also aired viewer responses to questions posed by the news department.
Local news men and women feel good about the media’s terrorism coverage.
Freeman sees a fundamental change in the media. “I think for the first time in perhaps a long, long time the coverage has been what viewers and readers and listeners want across the board,” Freeman asserted. “Serious journalism is back.”
Byrd agrees: “I think this horrible event has redeemed news gathering in many ways.”
March/April 2002 — From This Day Forward: The Evansville Eight
By Mary Frances Baugh
A phone call at 5 a.m. is seldom good news. The call on the morning of Oct. 12 was no exception.
Our daughter, Carolyn, spoke quietly.
“Mom, I need you to come home,” she said. “Now. Don’t pack. Just grab your backpack, catch the early flight from Eric to Evansville. I need your help with Aya. Tarek and Uncle have been arrested and spent the night in the Henderson jail.”
Her voice was soft, controlled, fighting tears.
“Why?” I shouted.
“I don’t know,” she said. “No one will tell me anything.”
“I’m gone,” I said. “I’ll call when I get a flight.”
Never had I left our summer home on Lake Erie so fast, carrying so little luggage. Our Egyptian-born son-in-law, Tarek Al Basti — a naturalized American, part-owner with Carolyn of the Crazy Tomato restaurant on Green River Road — and his uncle Adel, had been detained in the Oct. 11 sweep of Middle Eastern men. Seven of their Egyptian-born soccer-playing friends were detained as well.
The attorney general had announced that something awful was going to happen. As far as we were concerned, it certainly had. A wide net was cast, and with little or no time to check on those giving the tips. More than 1,100 people were being detained as material witnesses all over the country.
Polls showed that many Americans unequivocally supported such action. Strange that the polltakers never asked us how we felt. The weaving of an otherwise placid family life here in River City had been ripped from the loom. Our daughter was utterly devastated.
I feared for Tarek and Uncle. For us, it was the death of innocence about what it meant to have rights as a citizen. My husband, Jerry, and I were stunned and appalled.
Law and due process have been etched into our family tree for generations — we have a family full of attorneys. Now our son-in-law was taken into custody with no explanation, held without bond and given a closed hearing with a gag order.
His attorney could tell us nothing. Tarek, Uncle Adel, and their Egyptian-born friends were shackled, chained, and flown under armed guard to an undisclosed location, but not before a “perp walk” photo that ran on the front page of the Oct. 13 Courier & Press. Kafka’s “Trial” came to mind, but that was fiction. This wasn’t.
We had moved to Evansville in the 1960s when my husband left a career in the State Department’s Foreign Service. A University of Michigan Law School graduate, Jerry joined his father, Emmanuel, in the practice of law. Jerry became an assistant city attorney, the city attorney under the first Mayor McDonald, joining the firm of Lacey, Terrell, Annakin and Heldt. I was first and always a mother, then a student of humanities. I wrote.
Life in peaceful Evansville was so normal and comfortable that educational travel seemed crucial to raising our three children with a wider view of the world we had visited and loved. Evansville was a wonderful town from which to go out and to come home. We lived in the same house — a block from my husband’s family — for 34 years.
Our son David studied in Scotland for a junior year abroad, then stayed to graduate from the University of Aberdeen. Matthew spent a summer in Australia during high school. When Carolyn became interested in studying Arabic while at Duke University, we sent her to Middlebury for a summer to become fluent before her junior year abroad program in Egypt.
There she fell in love with an intelligent, tall, handsome Egyptian whom she met while rowing on the Nile for American University, Cairo. They married in Egypt. When they came to America, we had a family wedding as well. While Tarek worked two food service jobs, Carolyn finished her senior year at Duke University, graduate summa cum laude in Arabic studies. That the entire family, including my skeptical father, would love him was an added bonus. To Tarek’s delight, Dad called him “Pharaoh.” When they chose Evansville (Carolyn confessed to a happy childhood) and were able to purchase the Crazy Tomato, we were thrilled.
Although Jerry’s government career spanned several tense episodes in history, Sept. 11 was the worst disaster my husband and I had ever known. Oct. 11 was a direct result of that excruciating catastrophe. It rapidly became our own worst personal experience.
At the beginning of our family’s ordeal, I wanted to bring order out of chaos. I switched into “mother mode” — moving in with Carolyn at her request. She couldn’t keep food down. The phone rang constantly. (My husband fielded phone messages at our condo or his office.) I did household chores.
Friends and family stopped by with food, hugs, or to play with Aya. My long-time neighbor Margaret and I credit together. A massage therapist provided some relief. We felt physical, emotional, and spiritual support. Evansville people are truly wonderful in a crisis.
One morning I lost heart. I called our friend, a Jordanian-born doctor. He told me five things, which I repeated like a mantra: “They are alive. They are warm and dry. They are being fed at government expense. They are innocent. They will be home.” I give thanks to God for those words, which brought light to my darkest day.
Our friend reminded me that despite the government’s frenzied response to Sept. 11, it was still better here than in the Middle East where one could disappear without a trace. I had meant to ask him for a prescription for tranquilizers, but his words were enough.
By Sept. 15, two FBI agents had already come to question Tarek about his flying lessons — a gift from us. Tarek loved flying — the fulfillment of a childhood dream. After his release from prison, he tore up his long-coveted private pilot’s license. We came to wish devoutly that we had given him scuba lessons instead.
The good news was the FBI had been doing its job. The grim questions on Sept. 15 about his reasons for flying and his faith would have been enough to scare anyone, but the agents came back on Oct. 11. Apparently, as we later discovered, a strange tip from a very disgruntled wife of one of the Egyptian men who played soccer with Uncle and Tarek had set the local agents in motion. A juggernaut ensured.
After leaving Evansville, they were detained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, a fact discovered by my cousin, Mary Lou, a former FBI agent. We hired on Chicago’s finest criminal defense attorneys for Tarek. At the jail, administrators lied and told the attorney he wasn’t there.
Recounting these events some weeks later, that week seems like a Salvador Dali dreamscape. Our story has been in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times (twice) and the Washington Post (twice), as well as fully covered by the Evansville Courier & Press.
It’s not the sort of coverage one longs for in the restaurant business. The week they were detained as material witnesses in the MCC in Chicago awaiting their grand jury appearance, business was booming. The small remaining loyal staff reopened and kept the Crazy Tomato going with volunteer chefs, services from the community, and Cousin Steve to manage. Folks came to eat and to show their support.
Although the Egyptian Consul General was finally allowed to see some of them on Tuesday, the “detainees” were otherwise held incommunicado. They coordinated a hunger strike in order to see their attorneys.
Carolyn, having volunteered to be subpoenaed, left for Chicago on Monday of that awful week, while Aya and I stayed home. Aya was my joy in the midst of all the confusion, secrecy, and anguish.
I felt a great kinship with the media who were trying diligently to find out what the Feds were doing and why. We knew they had a collection of innocent Egyptian-born, soccer-playing dishwashers, chefs, servers, and restaurant owners. They obviously thought they had something significant.
My husband, yellow legal pad in hand, was able, by persistent phone calls and God’s grace, to get through to the prosecutor in charge. We both talked to him about the gift of flying lessons and how hard Tarek worked as a restaurant owner.
We may never know the turning points in the prosecutor’s decision to release the men, ultimately excusing them from a grand jury hearing. We think, quite possibly, that one was Carolyn’s seven hours of testimony that Wednesday. Without a doubt, the prosecutor was honest, fair, and unafraid of truth.
They were released Thursday evening. Tarek, who had not been questioned, returned from my cousin’s house Friday morning to talk to both the prosecutor and the FBI. He would have done that from the start — without a week in the MCC.
When they returned, the men were moved by an overwhelming outpour of love and sympathy. Flowers, letters, cards and prayers were in evidence — from the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish communities who knew our family, not to mention total strangers. Everyone is trying to put this nightmare to rest, hoping the actual nightmares abate.
I waited up that Friday night for Carolyn and Tarek to arrive home from Chicago. I wanted to hug him and express my sorrow and shame, to apologize for my government’s behavior.
“You’ve lost weight,” I said, hugging him at last.”
“I didn’t like their menu,” our restaurateur said wistfully.
May/June 2020 — From This Day Forward: The People’s Marathon
By Diane Floy and Elizabeth Lyon
April 10, 2001, 6 p.m. Meeting on the grounds of the Evansville State Hospital for their weekly speed workout, Diane and Elizabeth were ecstatic. They were both going to the same fall marathon. Immediately, they began to make travel plans and schedule training runs. Life really was good, they thought.
Their celebrating, as they were about to learn, was premature, for this was only April, long before their October 28, 2001, Marine Corps Marathon, also known as the People’s Marathon, in Washington, D.C. Its course would weave through Georgetown, Arlington, and foggy Bottom before taking Diane, Elizabeth, and 18,000 other runners past this country’s treasure trove of monuments and fully around the Pentagon.
Aug. 5, 2001, 5 a.m. While the world around them slept, Evansville residents Diane Floyd and Elizabeth Lyon marveled at the beauty and tranquility that surrounded them as they floated aimlessly on Dale Hollow Lake. Savoring the early morning peacefulness was routine for these women. Ordinarily, they would have been up and well into a training run, preparing for a marathon they were going to run together in October.
However, they decided to take a short hiatus and since they were on a boat and couldn’t run, they could at least be up and talking about it. It was Diane’s birthday, and Elizabeth had given her a shirt from three-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers’ running store. The shirt had one of Rodgers’ most famous quotes on it — “The marathon will humble you.”
They knew this. Elizabeth had five experiences tackling the coveted 26.2-mile course, and while Diane was training for her first, she knew that, among other things, the experience would be humbling. But on this early, carefree morning, that grueling trek, just like everything else, seemed a million miles away, and they just laughed. They had no way of knowning just how humbling their marathon experience was going to be.
It was just five weeks before Sept. 11, a day that changed not only the course of their running, but also the course of their lives forever.
I was an on-again, off-again runner, and during my last “on” phase, started training with “serious” runners — up and training at 5 a.m.; completing long runs in double digits; discussing speedwork, hill repeats, “fartlek” and “VO2” max. Their enthusiasm for running marathons was contagious. Emboldened by their support and encouragement, I proudly announced I was training for a marathon, knowing full well that after making that declaration, I could not turn back. I further proclaimed, “Elizabeth Lyon is going to help train me,” and our already-close friendship immediately took on a new meaning.
On Sept. 11, I thought about Elizabeth long before I thought about D.C. She was struggling and I was there for her. It occurred to me later that she would be there for me in October. Then I learned that she had changed her mind. I understood.
I, however, was going. Terrorism is not going to take this experience away from me; I would be in D.C., and I would be safe! I continued to train with Izzy (that’s what I call her), and while I never told her, I somehow knew that she would go, too. So it came as no surprise when she called me at the 11th hour on her way to the airport, instructing me to pick up some shoes for her and bring them to Washington. I thought to myself that “real” runners don’t wear new shoes to races, but this marathon was so much more than a 26.2-mile run.
On race morning, the atmosphere was electric. Runners were everywhere and our anticipation and excitement were almost tangible. I met Izzy at 6:30 a.m. and off we went, our feet barely touching the pavement. Our mood was immediately tempered when we approached the Iwo Jima Memorial and saw uniformed, armed Marines everywhere — more than 2,000, I later learned.
We made it to the start line and, along with the other runners aged 14 to 89, listed to a gallant Marine sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” his deep voice resonating above the road of the helicopters that had completely surrounded us. We pledged allegiance to the flag and were choking back tears by the time we proclaimed, “and justice for all.”
Precisely at 8:30 a.m., the boom of the 105mm Howitzer lurched us into motion. The crowd’s cheering was deafening and the thousands of flags they waved invigorating. At the 3-mile mark, I was comfortable in my pace and in awe so the six-minute milers gliding by me effortlessly. But even they were slowed by the site of a still-smoldering hole in the side of the Pentagon. Not yet a scar, it was still a wound on our nation’s capital and psyche. I was moved beyond words.
The Marine Corps Marathon was a race that wasn’t supposed to be for me. Injury, illness, and surgery plagued my training. Drs. James Heinrich and Andy Saltzman strongly advised against my going, but to no avail. I was going to that race. Then the horror of Sept. 11 took place and I shut down. I wasn’t going to D.C.; I wasn’t even sure I could get in my car and drive home from work that evening.
I cancelled my flight and my hotel but couldn’t bring myself to cancel my race entry. I continued to train with Diane, who had decided to go. As I witness America come together through compassion, strength, and heroism, my own sense of patriotism swelled, until just four days before the race I was obsessed with one thought — I had to run that marathon! Twenty-four hours later, I was on a plane headed to Washington, D.C. This was no longer about running; it was about being an American.
I ran with an American flag tucked in my tights. Running past the Pentagon, I saw the best and the worst of the world in which I live. The devastation was haunting, but the spontaneous chanting of “USA, USA” by the runners was riveting. I clutched that flag and was overcome with emotion as I ran by the still-smoldering rubble. I whispered, “Thank you.”
On the last mile of the course, there were signs posted with the “Top 10 Reasons Not To Give Up Now.” Anyone who has run a marathon knows that a t mile 26, everything is mental because there is nothing physical left. The very last sign displayed our American flag. That was the No. 1 reason not to give up, and that’s all I needed. I pulled out my own flag and waved it boldly as I charged up the hill around the Iwo Jima Memorial and across the finish line. Never have I had a prouder moment, and never have I been more humbled.
From This Day Forward — Diane’s Story
I don’t know if I’ll run another marathon. Even if I don’t, I am a runner, I am a marathoner, and from this day forward I will always be one of the group of 18,000 from all 50 states and 38 countries who banded together on Oct. 28, 2001, and whose presence made a profound statement.
Well before I crossed the finish line and celebrated my “running” victory, I savored the many victories that were so much more important — America had survived; freedom had persevered and terrorism would never, ever be tolerated.
From This Day Forward — Elizabeth’s Story
In some ways, life returns to normal, and on Jan. 10, 2002, I was out for an early morning run. The weather was ominous, and the sky was eerily cloudy. I don’t know why, but I thought about Todd Beamer that morning. He was one of the brave passengers who had tried to overtake the terrorists on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I knew that even though the sky was thick with clouds, Todd was looking down and could see his family and knew that they were OK.
I was beginning to think that I was going to be OK, too, and headed home to watch the 6 a.m. news. The lead story confirmed what I intuitively knew — that life really was going to be OK. Lisa Beamer, Todd’s wife, had just given birth to a healthy baby girl named Morgan, Todd’s middle name.
I don’t know if I really connected with Todd that morning, but I did reconnect with life. I was reminded that the human spirit, especially in America, thrives. From this day forward, I will accept that there are things I cannot control, but there are many things that I can. I can make a difference in the lives of others every day; I can see that the glass is always half full, and I can seize life passionately as an American and as a citizen of the world.
Because of our Marine Corps Marathon experience, we fully appreciate our United States of American and everything for which she stands. We better understand what it means to live in a country where freedom and safety are precious gifts and should never be taken for granted. We are indebted to those who make colossal sacrifices every day to protect and defend America’s freedom. Yes, the marathon truly did humble us.
July/August 2002 — From This Day Forward: A Sense of Duty
By Bill Jackson
“Dad, I know you don’t want to hear this, but …”
Those words can be chilling to any parent. If your son or daughter is in the military, the words can produce special concern. And if the nation’s commander-in-chief has just declared war on terrorism, the words ring especially true — you don’t want to hear what you fear is coming next.
In normal times, I wouldn’t expect the father of six of my grandchildren, who is pushing 40 and directing a local plastics company, to be running off to war. But 9/11 redefined the word normal. Vice President Dick Cheney, in fact, labeled the aftermath the “new normalcy.”
Things didn’t feel normal — new or otherwise — when the Jackson family gather last September to honor Rod, who was home for a few days while the beleaguered Army was trying to decide what to do with him.
Sgt. 1st Class Rod Jackson carried a cumbersome classification: Special Forces Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee. In other words, he was a reservist assigned to an active-duty unit. The unit was the Special Warfare Training Group (SWTG).
The family was uncharacteristically quiet as Rod explained his plans. “Dad, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’m trying to transfer to the 5th Group.”
The eyes of everyone around the dinner table seemed to focus subtly on me, waiting for a reaction. Some of the family may have been wondering whether I knew the significance of the statement. Unfortunately, I did.
The 5th SF Group, stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was reported to be headed to Afghanistan. It was headed for combat in an incredibly hostile environment against people with such a ferocious will and commitment that they had defeated Russia when it was still a superpower.
I wanted to ask Rod why he was doing this. He and his family would be making a significant sacrifice if we returned to active military duty — not to mention the dangers in volunteering for a war in a forsaken country many in Evansville, Indiana, had never heard of before 9/11. But I didn’t have to ask. I knew.
I knew these things: 1. Special Forces is a key element in our military organization, often entering a combat zone first as in Afghanistan to clear the way for other units and pick appropriate targets. 2. Rod was a patriot with a strong sense of personal responsibility. 3. He loves the military.
These were not reassuring facts to a worried father. Especially to a father so wimpish he refused to impale a worm on a fishhook at the same age when Rod was learning hand-to-hand combat. I used to tell him we were so different one of us must have been adopted.
Rod saw the movie “Green Berets” in high school and knew that’s where he wanted to be. He signed up two days before Christmas in 1980 — Merry Christmas, folks — through a short-lived Special Forces program that allowed him to graduate before entering active duty.
Today the Green Berets generally prefer mature personnel who have accumulated five to 10 years’ military experience before they apply to the elite SF. Only about half of those who endured the assessment and selection program — a 23-day exercise in mental and physical stamina — are chosen to move on to the SF Qualification Course. Many more fail the course. But those who survive the grueling training are counted among the world’s best-trained soldiers.
A self-described rowdy kid, Rod had often stretched the limits searching for excitement. He was a smallish football player who played twice as tough as his weight. An adventurer, he headed west on a motorcycle after graduation with no plan and no destination.
As I sat in front of a TV for countless hours watching events unfold after 9/11, my thoughts sometimes wandered to a September day in 1981 when I drove Rod to the federal building downtown. We waited for a military bus that would take him on the first leg of his journey to basic training and beyond. I was chocked up and couldn’t say much. That was OK with Rod — he wasn’t comfortable expressing emotions.
He entered the Special Forces program a boy searching for direction. He emerged a mature and confident young man with a wife and two children and a feeling he had made a small contribution to changing the world. “I consider joining SF as the watershed event in my life,” he said earlier this year. “SF training taught me to channel my desire to excitement into something productive. Driving fast motorcycles doesn’t hold a candle to exiting a C-130 at 1,200 feet and 125 knots. It settled me down and gave me a direction in my life.”
During a four-year tour of duty, he helped train Central American armies for their struggles with communist guerrillas. I had only vague knowledge of his activities. I knew, however, that the region was in turmoil and that Special Forces personnel were in the thick of it. I didn’t like it much that he was there.
He called once from the jungles of Honduras on a line so murky we had to yell at one another. Mostly I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. Years later I learned that his duties had taken him to Japan, Korea, England, and Germany in addition to almost every Central American country. Special Forces personnel serve in 130 countries around the world.
Even today he refused to be specific about Special Forces operations. But he did give a general view recently of what was happening in Central America in those days. “El Salvador had a full-=blown civil war, Nicaragua was a communist regime, Honduras had just recently had democratic elections, and Guatemala was fighting a guerrilla movement. We stayed very busy,” he said with considerable understatement.
Rod reluctantly left active duty in 1985 out of consideration for his wife Leigh and their growing family. He earned an engineering degree at the University of Southern Indiana and held quality control jobs in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Mexico (he had become fluent in Spanish in SF) before buying into QTR, a plastic compounding company, and becoming its president. He found time to coach the sports teams of his four daughters and two sons, now ranging in age from 7 to 18.
He also stayed active in the Reserve and had been assigned to Special Warfare Training Group for the past five years. He was undergoing annual training with the unit in Oklahoma when terrorists attacked America.
His current term of service was ending, and he already had discharge papers in his hands. To no one’s surprise in the family, Rod immediately re-enlisted for six years and volunteered for active duty. His explanation was simple: “I strongly felt that it was the right thing to do.” He joined more than 81,000 Reserve and National Guard personnel ultimately called into active duty as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The initial results of his effort to transfer to the 5th Group were good for Rod and not so good for those of us concerned about him. The battalion sergeant major he talked with at Fort Campbell agreed to the transfers. Communications specialists are in short supply in Special Forces.
But fate sometimes is kind to worried fathers. SWTG did not approve his transfer to the 5th Group, despite Rod’s protests. The unit left without him, and Rod was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is a communications instructor in the Special Forces Qualification Course, teaching SF candidates how to use electronic communications equipment. He is also partly responsible for their physical conditioning, and at age 39, that’s a challenge.
When his trainees — some of them young enough to be his sons — run eight miles, he runs eight. When they carry 65-pound packs on their backs on brisk walks for several miles, he does the same. He recently completed 100 push-ups and 96 sit-ups in two-minute sessions. The Army requires 42. It’s a matter of pride and determination, and maybe an opportunity for an “old-timer” to show soldiers of the new Army a thing or two.
Sometimes his determination exacts a painful price. During a training jump in May, his foot became tangled in a static line and suffered a severe jerk as he left the plane. He knew the foot was broken as he floated toward Earth but had no choice other than to land on it. He walked off the drop zone rather than endure the embarrassment of being carried off. “It hurt like hell,” he admitted later.
When an SF communication specialist was one of the first to die in the Afghanistan war, my first thought was a selfish one — it could have been Rod. I didn’t sleep much that night, or when three 5th SF Group personnel died in action.
When local media reported an Evansville native had been wounded in Afghanistan, I was struck by the parallels. David Betz also served in Special Forces. He held the same rank as Rod. He was based at Fort Campbell, where Rod had tried to transfer. I thought of Betz’ mother Denise and what she must be going through. I thought of millions of other Americans in a special community — families of our military — and wondered how many at that moment were expressing the same worries I had.
Then it struck me. It has always been this way in America. Freedom is not easy, nor is it guaranteed. It must be defended. And when our loved ones take on that job, a few sleepless nights for a father, or mother, or spouse is a small price to pay for protecting our way of life.
I’m proud of what Rod and nearly a million and a half other American military personnel are doing for our country. I’m worried, but I’m proud.
Read more about Evansvillians experiences on and after 9/11 in an online exclusive with testimonies commemorating the attacks’ 20th anniversary.