We Worked Together for a Just Cause

By Thomas E. HastingsSpecial to South Jersey SundayOn May 1 of this year, President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden - justice finally served, courtesy of Navy SEAL Team Six. The chants of "USA, USA", outside the White House and in New York's Times Square, instinctively brought back memories of that horrific day when our nation was attacked by radical Islamists in hijacked commercial airplanes.Ten years have passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa. As we came to learn, it was only through the courageous actions of the passengers that the hijackers were prevented from reaching their intended target.That day, the nation was in shock. I remember President George W. Bush's famous speech at Ground Zero when he proclaimed "I can hear you, and the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." The nation came together, at least for a brief time.The day after the attack, I received a phone call from my Delaware Air National Guard medical unit. The first sergeant asked me if I could volunteer my services as a radiology technologist at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary. The sergeant, an x-ray tech himself, told me that he would be going to Dover.Before I could answer, uncontrollable thoughts raced through my mind. I thought about my personal life and responsibilities, which included my wife and two children, and my civilian job. Then I thought about duty to country, and within seconds, answered, "Yes. I'll go."Along with the first sergeant and another member from our medical group, we received deployment orders, instructing us to report to the base mortuary on Sept. 14.A military briefing explained that the goal of the mission was twofold: to identify the remains of the victims killed at the Pentagon and to aid in the investigation of the attack. Dover's active duty personnel were augmented by more than 200 military and federal personnel, many with various forensic specialties.The mortuary was housed in a huge weather-beaten hangar. Outside, in the parking lot, several refrigerated tractor trailer trucks were lined up. Someone told me that they were delivering the victims' remains. The trucks had the letters G.O.D, an acronym for "Guaranteed Overnight Delivery," emblazoned on their sides. Inside, the surroundings were austere; the smell of death permeated the air. The x-ray machines, although antiquated, were functional.On the morning of my first duty day, I saw an active duty sergeant sitting alone. Her eyes had an unmistakable "thousand-yard stare." The victims' remains were each tagged with an identification number. For the next several weeks, the mortuary team worked around the clock. It was a daunting task, requiring a lot of manpower.We all worked together for a just cause specifically to help identify the victims so that their families could have closure. There were more than 180 victims in all, including the terrorists. It was a humbling experience.Four years later, I performed a week of active duty on the base. By this time, Dover's mortuary was a brand new, state-of-the art, facility. Absent was the smell of death, replaced by a sterile, aseptic atmosphere. One day, I assisted the active duty personnel on several mortuary cases. I was unexpectedly shocked after seeing two deceased military members, casualties from the Iraq war. There was a young female Marine lying on a stainless steel table. She had been recently killed in Mozul, Iraq, by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber. A young Army soldier lay on the table next to her.That summer, I was privileged to serve at the Air Force Theatre Hospital in Balad, Iraq. Most of the injuries were caused by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The hospital treated Iraqi civilians, military personnel and insurgents as well. Ironically, my last duty day was Sept. 11, 2005.It's been a long 10 years since the war on terrorism began. I'm retired. My wife Alice has a successful business. My daughter Alison is engaged, and my son Chris has a precocious 3-year-old daughter named Kylie. I'm a proud and doting grandfather.There's not a day that goes by, however, that I don't think of the people who died at the Pentagon. I think of the civilian government workers, the dedicated military personnel, and the passengers on American Airlines Flight 77. Among those who lost their lives were 55 military members. The civilians killed included the pilots and crew, five teachers, a fifth-grade class on a field trip, six corporate executives and a television commentator.I only remember the name of one victim. On my last duty day, I x-rayed an Army lieutenant colonel. His name tag was burned into his chest. That day, I vowed to myself that I would never forget him, along with the other innocent victims who were killed at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and in Shanksville.Todd Beamer, the heroic passenger on Flight 93, best reflected the nation's resolve on that sad day when he said, "Are you guys ready Let's roll!"On this day, may we be united in memory and never forget our fallen.-Thomas E. Hastings is a retired Air Force master sergeant. A former National Park resident, he now lives in Gloucester Township.

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