On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was 20 years old and had been in the Navy just under two years. I was driving to work across the base I was stationed at just a few short miles from Washington DC when the first plane hit the twin towers. Like most people that morning I was confused by the news, but I walked into work just in time to see the second plane hit on the TV in the office. My co-workers and I crowded around a television in confusion and horror for about half an hour, and then, the Pentagon was hit. The base I worked on was a perceived top 10 target and chaos ensued. A friend of mine was standing next to me when the news broke about the Pentagon. She was 8.5 months pregnant and her Marine husband was stationed at the Pentagon. We were instructed to return to our Divisions. I told her that I would check in with my boss and come find her and stay with her until there was news about her husband. After that things get hazy.
I remember the piercing sun and the brilliant blue sky of that morning. The latter is something that most people who were in New York or DC remember about that day. I remember civilians running to their cars as all non-essential civilian personnel were instructed to evacuate the base. I worked on a base with over 20,000 employees, to give you an idea of the chaos. After checking in with my boss, I found my friend and we barricaded ourselves in a room in the Marine barracks and waited. I only remember the terror I felt and the concern I had for my friend. I remember jet engines flying overhead as we braced for impact. Hours went by when we finally got news that my friend’s husband had hiked up I-395 and had found a ride home. He was safe. The phones were jammed until evening, so I also remember the relief in my own father’s voice when he heard me say that I was safe. He was concerned that I had been at the Pentagon that day for some reason. Given the line of work that I did, that would have been a possibility.
Three days after the attacks I volunteered as a relief worker at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center which had been set up to serve the victims’ families about two blocks from the attack site. The U.S. Navy lost more people in that attack that took 184 lives than any other branch or department. I spent 45 days serving the families of those killed. I wish I could tell you that my Catholic faith is what got me through it; that I spend hours in prayer and focused on Christ, but I didn’t. I was only a nominal Catholic at the time and while my faith was in the background, it wasn’t my focus. The first time I saw the site was four days after the attack. I stood there with 400 family members who were in complete agony. As I stared in horror at the collapsed, smoldering building, I remember thinking that I was staring into Hell. I knew that God did not desire blood, if he did, then I wanted no part in that universe.
I don’t have the word space to share the memories of my relief work in detail. I can say that I saw the deepest of human suffering coupled with the greatest of human triumph, love, and goodness. The darkest hours tend to bring about the light that dwells within each human being who is made in the image and likeness of God. I also can say that even though I suffered greatly because of my relief work and experiences of 9-11 in the years that followed, I would not change my decision to volunteer. It is an experience that has shaped me as a person for better and for worse.
Three years after I finished my relief work I found myself in the dark abyss of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had spent the initial years following 9-11 in a workaholic frenzy. I worked long hours and tried to keep to the military mantra of “suck it up” and keep moving. It didn’t work and while I was stationed in England, PTSD came on with a vengeance. I can best describe my own experiences of PTSD as those of the character Katniss Everdeen as played by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. In fact, as I have watched those movies, I have been shocked by how accurate her portrayal is of PTSD and how it looks so much like mine did. I had nightmares, night terrors, sleep paralysis with wakefulness, insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks, and deep depression. I eventually had to check myself into the hospital. I lived alone at the time and it had become unbearable.
Even though this was one of the darkest periods in my life, it was also one of profound grace and a sense of God’s presence and the knowledge that He sent His Mother to help me. She was with me through those dark nights alone spent in fear, and she guided me through the month I spent in the hospital and the years that followed in my recovery. It was in those moments that God began to draw me to Him. He took this deep suffering and used it for my sanctification and eventual return to the fullness of the Catholic faith. I have learned much from this decade long period of my life.
Love Makes Us Fully Human
It is love that brings us into the fullness of our humanity. Since God is love and we are made in His image and likeness, we are most human when we choose to love. Both in my relief work experience and in my PTSD I saw this truth. Even though great suffering, terror, and pain had struck, I worked with hundreds of people who rushed in to help those in need. I was in awe of the relief workers who worked at the sites in recovery and clean up. I was amazed at how it was love, not hatred that I met in the family members who had lost loved ones and I was honored to work with so many people who desired to do good in the face of so much evil.
When my PTSD struck, God had put in place the strongest and greatest friendships that I had ever known, including a British friend of mine who took over my affairs and drove three hours weekly to come see me at the hospital in London. She also provided me with a family who took me in and loved me at my lowest point and friends to help me keep going to Mass when things got really hard. I was living in a foreign country and going through the hardest period of my life at that point and Christ was with me every step of the way.
Dark Nights Shape Us
Our culture runs from suffering and views it as the ultimate evil. I don’t think anyone enjoys suffering, but it is one of the most profound ways that Christ reaches deep within us and brings us to Himself. It wasn’t 9-11 itself that brought me back to Him, it was my own abyss of PTSD that pulled me close to Him and His Mother. It is important for us to remember that suffering brings about good, because God will use it on our path to holiness. Our Lord suffered and died before he could rise on Easter morning. Even though suffering is difficult, it will give way to the Resurrection.
Evil Cannot Overcome Good
Attacks like 9-11, the wars going on throughout the world, starvation, sickness, death, and all of the evil and suffering in the world cannot overcome the power of good. Evil is a deprivation of good, so it is incapable of destroying good. I saw this as a relief worker and I see it in the images of those people trying to help the thousands of refugees fleeing war. A single act of goodness and love overpowers evil.
We Must Pray for Our Enemies
It took me 13 years to be able to do it, but last year I finally prayed for the souls of the 19 hijackers who had perpetrated the attacks on 9-11. It was painful because of how much I had seen and carried, but it was a moment where God reached deep within me and healed my wounds. Being Christian is not about only praying for those who are hurt, it is also about praying for our enemies. When a violent or evil act is committed we must not only remember the victims, but also the offender. We do not know what power our prayers may have and how God wants to work in other peoples’ lives. So pray for your enemies, not only for their sake, but for your own. In praying for those who hurt us and forgiving that pain, we become more like Christ and are set free from the chains of hate and anger that bind us.
Today we remember 9-11 on this 14th anniversary. It was a great tragedy for our nation and the world. Any act of violence is a tragedy. Unfortunately in those 14 years, tens of thousands of lives have been lost due to the same kind of hatred and evil. As Catholics, we must persevere in prayer for peace and never lose hope, even in the darkest of days.