Some people had had asked that I share my speech from today (September 11, 2013) since they couldn’t attend the event. So here it is. I hope I did their memory proud.
Good afternoon. I would first like to extend a very heartfelt thank you to Janna Thomsen. I am so grateful that she offered me this chance to speak about an event that has greatly affected and shaped the course of my life. Before I begin I wanted to take the time to acknowledge the esteemed speakers that I share the stage with. I’ll start with the County Executives who are charged with the very important job of leading Montgomery County. There is no doubt that his is a difficult and challenging position to hold. I will always pray that he’s blessed with the wisdom to carry out the duties of his office and continue to lead this county to greatness. Next I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all of “Sheep Dogs” on stage and in the audience. For those of you who may be confused as to what I mean, I am talking about those representing our Military, Police, and Fire and rescue. They are the protectors of our community, our nation, of our very way of life. They go when called without hesitation. They seek not glory, praise, prestige, or wealth. Their job satisfaction comes from knowing that you and I get to sleep peacefully in our beds. As we lie resting always keep in mind that we do so with our freedoms and liberty secured under the umbrella of their protection. So please join me in giving a round of applause to show our appreciation of all that they do.
I have a fairly unique perspective on the world post 9-11. I was there from day one, ground zero at the Pentagon. I took the first team from the US Army in to aid with search and rescue. A few years later I spent 2005-2006 riding atop a Humvee manning a .50 cal. On over 700 convoy missions I have traversed all across the nation of Iraq escorting VIP’S to and from their varied destinations across the land. In the time I spent performing these two roles I have seen all that is great in people. I have seen courage and fear, love and hate, cruelty and compassion, and I have experienced life and death.
That is a lot to cram into an 8-minute speech! With that in mind I decided that my goal would be two fold. First I want to demonstrate how far reaching that day is and show to you that its shadow actually extends much further than people realize. Secondly I hope to bring you face to face with the fact that regardless of how big an event is, when you look past the numbers and statistics you will find the individual stories that really matter. Once you do that the event becomes a lot more personal and intimate. If I am to be successful I need to do the best I can to make you understand the myriad of emotions that those like me have felt since our journey started that fateful day. I hope I can make this more personal for you. I want to bring it to your doorstep and share some of the emotions that I have felt during this long journey. If I can do that then I will ensure that when you leave here today, it will be reaffirmed in your heart and mind why we can never forget September 11th, 2001.
While remembering the event as a whole is an extremely important thing, often times we get lost in the big numbers. As we toss them around in our head we forget that all of those numbers are just like us. They had families, dreams, and ambitions. Ultimately they had the greatest thing we can possess; they had hope for a bright future. So in an effort to bring individualism to this mass causality event I have decided to speak about two different individuals whose lives were forever be linked in my mind to that day. One was a civilian, and one was a soldier.
When the call went out for a team leader to volunteer him and his men, my hand went up. They hadn’t told us what we were volunteering for, they didn’t have too, we were soldiers and our job is to go when asked. Shortly after collecting my guys together we were linked up with the individual in charge of those entering and exiting the Pentagon. We got a quick debrief and then with gloves and dust mask we made our way in. We were able to gain access through a door located on the far right corner of the same side the plane had struck.
As we entered it felt like I had stepped into some film that was telling the story of a forgotten war. I remember thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way this could be real life. No way had this happened in America. I have to be dreaming.’ Sadly as we all know, I was not.
As we walked along the corridor of what I had hoped was a dream was in fact a living nightmare. Walls were buckled, the ceilings had completely dropped, and loose wiring hung everywhere. On the floor there was about 3-6 inches of water that covered the ground. As we sloshed along you could see the debris destruction strewn everywhere, and as we got deeper and deeper into the heart of madness it became pitch black despite the fact that it was midday. This only heightened the feeling of dread in my gut. All of that was bad enough but what sticks out most to me was the smell. It was the God-awful smell of things that were burnt which shouldn’t be.
We continued to make our way through the maze of destruction until we entered our first room. There we found FBI and ATF agents all around. They were taking pictures, collecting evidence, and categorizing the scene. That’s when I saw him, the first person I would pull out. His name was Donald Simmons.
I knew his name because before we were allowed to remove him they rolled him over and took his ID out and stated it for the record Keeper. He was a large man, around 6’3”, and I had assumed by his attire that he may have been a janitor or maintenance man. We rolled him over on the litter, and began to make the trek back through the rubble to get him out.
The debris however made it a difficult maneuver. Every step caused us to slip or fall, and that ultimately meant that Mr. Simmons body kept falling over on me. At one point his hand rolled over and hit mine. That’s when I looked down and saw a wedding band. Instantly my heart sank. I knew right then that there was someone waiting at home, someone who counted on this man. He had someone who loved him, who shared his dreams, his hopes and fears, someone who would now face it all alone. That wedding band broke my heart, and the gut punch of it all was that all he was guilty of was going to work. That left me angry, that left me crying out for justice for him and those like him.
Fast forward a few years and a call came out again for volunteers. Again my hand went up and before I knew it I was on a plane headed to Iraq. I went as a replacement and when I got there I linked up with the guys I’d spend the rest of the tour with, the “Rough Riders” of the MNSTC-I J3. We were a two-platoon company of mixed service branches. Our Mission was pretty straightforward; escort VIP’s to anywhere in the land regardless of the threat level. I was in first Platoon and SSG Robert Hernandez was in 2nd. He roomed with my buddy Riki in the trailer next to mine. He was a funny guy. He had an accent so strong that half the time you couldn’t understand a word he said over the radio. He loved his coco puffs, and you never saw him without a smile on his face.
On March 28th, 2006 a mission came to drive down route Michigan, which was on the other side of Fallujah, to escort a General who was to go watch an Iraqi Police graduation. We had been down the route 10 times and we had been attacked (blown up or shot at) 9 of those times. It was the worst route we traveled and everyone knew what it meant.
On the road back from graduation they struck and IED and SSG Hernandez was blown from the vehicle. He was a double leg amputee. The other 3 inside the Humvee were critically injured as well. He held on and refused to give the enemy the satisfaction of passing away in the mud, so while everyone fought the enemy around him he held on.
While the other three men lived, SSG Hernandez unfortunately he died on the Medevac. He left behind a fiancée and three children. They are without a husband and father because he placed everyone’s lives here as having greater value than his own.
He, like so many of us that were in the military or joined the military after 9-11, requested deployment to make sure to avenge that day and hopefully prevent anther event like it. With that desire to take the fight to the enemy before the enemy could bring the fight to our door steps many of our brave service men and women have charged into combat only to fall on some distant land. Those who have returned have done so scarred physically, mentally, or both.
9-11 is still happening today. Yes almost 3000 Americans lost their lives on that day, but in its wake we have seen two wars fought that have produced staggering numbers that people don’t always associate with it.
Over 6,700 service members have been killed in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 50,000 have been injured. Our veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 18 per day as reported by CBS news. Sadly we are, for the first time in history, seeing more service members taking their own lives than those killed by the enemy.
We owe it to these brave men and women not only to remember but to care enough to do everything we can to see that they are taken care of. It is our turn to fight for them.
My experiences have caused me to shed tears in the dark far from prying eyes. As the saying goes:
“It hurts to remember, but it hurts even more to forget.”
So now, here in the light of day, in front of all of you I ask that you place individual names to this day. I hope that in doing so their face will serve as a stark reminder that the large numbers don’t really tell the whole story of all the individual life that has been lost. As you sit here today I hope you put a face to Donald’s and Robert’s name. I need you to imagine someone who you are close with in your life. I want you to think about someone you know in the military or thinking about going into the military.
Once you do this then take a minute to think about what life for you would be like if they were violently ripped away. Once you put your friends and family’s faces to 9-11 and the wars that have followed maybe you can begin to see the enormity of this event. Perhaps you will take time to reflect on how you’d feel if your loved ones were no longer a “Bob” or a “Sara”, a “Timmy” or a “Jane”, but instead they were just another statistic that people pass around in conversation.
Once you make that personal connection to the day, you will never even consider forgetting the importance of it, and you will do everything in your power to make sure the world doesn’t forget either. Thank you for your time. Thank you for being here. Thank you for remembering. God Bless the fallen and God bless America.
Thanks to everyone who attended this event and others like it around the world.