Military’s aid and comfort ease 9/11 survivors’ burden

Tue Aug 20, 2002
Courtesy of USA TODAY

In the months just before her daughter Alexandria was born, Stephanie Dunn stopped coming to Arlington National Cemetery. She didn't want people to see a pregnant woman kiss a headstone.

But now she comes often to section 64, a quiet corner overlooking the side of the Pentagon where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed. On a recent hot day, she propped Allie, now 5 months old, on the parched grass atop Navy Commander Patrick Dunn's grave. The infant's tiny hand grabbed the smooth marble stone.

”That's Daddy,” cooed her mother. She kissed her husband's headstone and strapped her daughter into the stroller Pat picked out a week before he died. It's blue and gold, the Naval Academy colors.

Walking amid dozens of markers reading ”Sept. 11, 2001,” Dunn is among friends. ”He came to our engagement party,” she says of one. ”We were at his house for dinner,” she says, pointing to another.

Almost half of the 125 people who died inside the Pentagon, and three Navy veterans among the 59 killed aboard the hijacked jet, lie here. They remain in death, as in life, part of the military family. So are those they left behind. Nearly a year after the terrorist attacks, the military's fiercely held tradition of taking care of its own has proved a powerful salve for the wounds of Sept. 11.

Many of the families of those killed at the World Trade Center in New York and on United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pa., were pretty much on their own. But Pentagon families were embraced by a longstanding support system. It meant free burial plots, counseling, help in applying for benefits,  running errands and more.

”The military community is much better prepared to deal with the kind of losses experienced on 9/11,” says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who studies civilian-military relations. ”It would be a mistake to think that the losses do not hurt as much, but we would expect a military community to recover more quickly than a civilian community.”

That expectation, oddly, has fed resentment among some Pentagon families. Many say the news media spotlight has focused too narrowly on New York. None here dispute the differences. A staggering 2,823 died in New York, 184 here. The World Trade Center was destroyed. The Pentagon is nearly whole again; workers started moving back into the rebuilt section last week.

As the nation prepares to mark the anniversary of the attacks, much of the attention will again be on the yawning chasm in New York. And some at the Pentagon can't help thinking America has relegated their loss to a sideshow, perhaps because they are seen as a more ”legitimate target” than the twin towers. Never mind that more civilians, 70, died in the Pentagon than uniformed military, 55.

There's an unspoken perception among civilians that ”the military expect to die,” says Teri Maude, whose husband, Army Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, 53, was the highest-ranking officer killed at the Pentagon. ”But that's not true.”

Especially not for people sitting at a desk in the fortresslike Pentagon.

‘Just like in the movies'

Commander Marty Martin appeared at Stephanie Dunn's Springfield, Virginia, townhouse at 3 a.m. Sept. 12. ”There was a knock on the door, just like in the movies,” she recalls. Accompanied by a chaplain and another officer, Martin introduced himself as her casualty assistance officer and told her what she already knew: Pat, 39, was among the Pentagon missing.

In the weeks that followed, Martin was with Dunn up to 12 hours a day. When Pat's remains were identified, Martin broke the news. He claimed Pat's mangled uniform when Dunn couldn't bear to see it. He planned and, as commander of the Navy's ceremonial guard, conducted Pat's funeral in view of the charred Pentagon. He explained benefits and filled out forms. When Allie was born, when Dunn's father had a stroke, when she needed groceries, Martin was there.

”My husband knew the Navy would take care of me. ‘Once a shipmate, always a shipmate,' ” says Dunn, 32, one of eight Pentagon widows who had babies after Sept. 11. ”It makes me feel bad that (civilians) don't have the resources I have.”

Including financial resources. Like all Sept. 11 survivors, Pentagon families are eligible for the federal victims compensation fund, Social Security, Red Cross donations and money from other charities. Survivors of servicemembers killed on active duty are also entitled to at least $250,000 in life insurance, 55% of a spouse's pension until the survivor remarries, a $6,000 death payment for immediate expenses, burial costs, health care coverage and other benefits.

For Martin, 41, it is a ”lifelong assignment” to ”take care of the family that's left behind.” And it's one that has evolved from duty to friendship. He invited Dunn to his wedding last week. She invited him to Allie's baptism on Pat's old ship, the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, in December.

Kevin Shaeffer, 30, sat next to Pat Dunn in the Navy Command Center. Shaeffer was the only one of 30 people in that office to survive. He also says ”my Navy family” was ”absolutely vital.” Officials gave his wife, Blanca, a Navy lieutenant like him, months of paid leave to be at his side at Washington Hospital Center's burn unit. A Navy official was always in the waiting room ”as a shoulder to cry on,” he says.

The young officer's injuries were among the worst of the 140 people wounded in the attack. He suffered severe burns on 42% of his body, lost most of the skin on his arms, hands and back, and inhaled jet fuel that damaged his lungs. His heart stopped twice

In what he calls one of many miracles — the first was his survival and escape — Shaeffer turned a corner the next day and began a slow recovery. He spent three months in the hospital and endured 17 surgeries, the last in June.

Shaeffer will wear gray pressure gloves and shirts to reduce scarring until January. His right arm is numbed by nerve damage. He is in constant pain and has trouble breathing at night. Yet he's over the worst physical hurdles. He knows because his nightmares started last month. ”I'm onto the next thing that needs healing,” says Shaeffer, who is mulling his next career, possibly in public service. ”I expect it to get harder before it gets easier.”

Paul Gonzales' nightmares started immediately after Sept. 11. They've subsided, but the guilt about surviving has not. The Defense Intelligence Agency lost seven people that day. Three worked for Gonzales, the civilian deputy comptroller.

”It doesn't make sense — two young mothers and a man a year from retiring. That's what keeps you up at night,” says Gonzales, 47, a retired Navy Commander who was hospitalized with lung damage. That he received his agency's highest award for leading five people to safety doesn't ease the pain.

But he and his co-workers are finding ways to cope. Every desk in the agency's offices is now equipped with a flashlight and emergency smoke hood. Also on hand: fire axes, smoke blankets and fire extinguishers.

Not every Pentagon office has such safety gear; that's up to each supervisor. But the Army's Operation Solace, a stress management program set up for Pentagon employees within days of the attack, is available to all.

Using ”therapy by walking around,” nearly 100 counselors have gone door to door, desk to desk, to talk to every employee, military and civilian. Many reported sleep and eating problems and sensitivity to loud noises.

The program offers individual counseling, support groups and other mental health services. In a culture that teaches its own to ”soldier on” in adversity and traditionally rejected therapy as a sign of weakness, many have accepted.

Among them was Tony Rose, a gruff Army sergeant major with 31 years of soldiering. Rose has been in therapy since October. He went back into the burning building five times to rescue survivors — heroism that earned him the Soldier's Medal for bravery. He still has nightmares about the body parts he later helped recover.

”It's part of our life pattern to respond to emergencies,” says Rose, 48. ”It's our military training that you just do what you have to do.”

Despite such lingering difficulties, Army Lt. Col. Charles Milliken, Operation Solace's director, says the military community has proved resilient. ”We've seen remarkably little major psychiatric illness” compared with workers in klahoma City after the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people — fewer than died at the Pentagon.

War provided ‘reason'

The war on terrorism helped, providing a mission and a distraction. ”There was a reason beyond themselves that made it important to come to work,” Milliken says.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the tone the evening of Sept. 11. Standing at a podium in the still-burning building, Rumsfeld declared: ”The Pentagon's functioning. It will be in business tomorrow.” And it was. Nearly  half of the Pentagon's 23,000 workers showed up for work Sept. 12.

But as troops headed for Afghanistan ( news – web sites) in late September, there was a gnawing feeling among those who survived the war's opening that their suffering was being overlooked. It wasn't overt or intended, but people took note of the slights:

* The daughter of a Navy captain who was killed wrote to The Washington Post that the National Memorial Day Concert at the Capitol focused on the twin towers and paid ”token” attention to the attack across the Potomac River.

* Meg Falk, who coordinates support for Pentagon survivors, was dismayed by commemorative books that had ”hundreds of pages with pictures of New York and just one or two of the Pentagon.”

* America: A Tribute to Heroes, the star-studded telethon that aired Sept. 21, had one celebrity, Julia Roberts, talking about the Pentagon attack. ”That doesn't go unnoticed by any of the survivors,” Shaeffer says. ”It's important that no one forget what happened at the Pentagon. To my wife and me, our tragedy is equal to the tragedy in New York.”

Other Pentagon families were happy to remain in the shadows. ”The focus on the World Trade Center has given them a chance to recover at their own pace and not under the spotlight,” says Maj. Todd Leavitt, an Army psychiatrist. Some bonded with their New York and Pennsylvania counterparts. In June, Dunn went to the Bronx Botanical Gardens to meet 100 other women who  had given birth to fatherless babies. ”We all became one family that day,” she says. ”It's not ‘My story's better than yours.' It was ‘How are you doing?'

And there was support. The drab Pentagon hallways soon sprouted hundreds of colorful posters drawn by schoolchildren from across the nation. Families were inundated with letters and e-mails. Though unconscious at the time, Gonzales says he still appreciates that first lady Laura Bush visited his bedside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Sept. 12.

But Maude says others felt ”great frustration” at the constant media focus on New York. ”There was nothing about the heroes at the Pentagon,” she says. ”It was like, ‘Don't they know something happened in D.C. as well?'

Feaver says news coverage may have differed because ”the military do promise to put their lives on the line to defend the country in a way that Wall Street brokers and cafeteria workers do not. That changes the nature of the trauma and shock which their deaths inflict” on the public.

But not on their families. ”I still ask how am I going to do this on my own,” says Dunn, looking at Allie amid a dozen red, white and blue baby quilts sent by strangers. ”It doesn't matter how many caves we blow up, it's never going to bring my husband back.”

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