A Seminary Student, Now an Army Mom Reflects on 9/11

The new second lieutenants, family and friends. L-R: Phil Warner, 2LT Brian Papke, 2LT Nelson Lalli, SFC Keith Polidoro, Dorie Griggs, Chelle Leary. photo by Stanley Leary.

10 years ago on September 11, 2001 I was supposed to be serving on jury duty.  As a full-time seminary student my service that day was differed and I attended class instead.  It was a World Missions class.  After class ended I headed to the chapel like many of my fellow students did every morning for the daily chapel service.

When I arrived outside the chapel, I saw a group gathering.  It isn’t unusual to see something different outside the chapel.  I just assumed we were going to process in together.  As I got closer I realized this gathering focused their attention on a TV screen. The first tower of the World Trade Center had been hit. My fellow seminarians stood around in shock, a scene that was repeated in various forms around the world that day.

Today, 10 years later, about 11 of my oldest sons classmates report to Ranger School at Ft. Benning.  They have completed their training in Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course. These young men were in Middle School on September 11, 2001. I imagine some decided that day ten years ago that they would serve their country.

In four weeks my oldest son will graduate from Armor Basic Officer Leader Course then three weeks later report to Ranger School.

10 years ago while standing in front of that television set on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary, I couldn’t have imagined how the following ten years would unfold.  I was about to start a year-long unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  My focus was on developing a model of chaplaincy to journalists who cover traumatic events.

I knew through my journalist friends that they, like other first responders, saw and experienced trauma up close.  I also knew then, as I do now, unlike firefighters, police EMS and other first responders journalists do not get the same training or support the others have.  My call to be a supportive presence to journalists who risk their safety to keep us informed was formed leading up to and including the 2001 – 2002 school year.

Dorie Griggs with Dart Center Ochberg Fellows, Mike Walter, John McCusker, Moni Basu at the screening of Mike Walter’s documentary, “Breaking News, Breaking Down.” photo by Stanley Leary.

Since 2001, I have had the opportunity to meet and be mentored by some of the leading researchers in the area of traumatic stress studies. The Rosalyn Carter Mental Health Journalism Program have afforded me tremendous opportunities to meet and learn from scholars and researchers in the area of traumatic stress. The leadership of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has taught me a great deal about the trials journalists go through.  I’ve had the privilege to also learn from and listen to the struggles of journalists who have covered some of the world’s worst disasters, both natural and man-made.

A few of these journalists were there at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon the morning of 9/11/01. Photojournalist David Handschuh was at the foot of the WTC when it began to collapse.  He was seriously injured that day.  Mike Walter was on his way to the DC TV station, where he served as an anchor, when a plane hit the Pentagon. Both journalists are fellows with the Dart Center and members of the Dart Society.  I am grateful to them for sharing their personal stories.

I am still on the journey to be a supportive presence to journalists. My call has expanded to also teach civilians about traumatic stress and how to be supportive to our returning veterans. I now serve on the board of directors for the nonprofit, Care For The Troops.

10 years ago standing in front of that TV on the seminary campus I could not have predicted the wide variety of journalists I would come to know both in the US and abroad.  I could not imagine that my then 12-year-old son and his friends from The Citadel would be second lieutenants training with the U.S Army Rangers, or that I’d even know what that training entails.

I am grateful to the many people who have seen the importance of this call to be a supportive presence to journalists and also to the members of the military and veterans.

A Sister, a Mom, a Family Prepares for Military Life

It’s hard to believe in just over a month my oldest son will graduate from The Citadel. The time, for me at least, has flown by. Looking through photos from his college career, I’m forced to believe the time really has gone by.

Chelle and Nelson in Charleston, September 2007.

Our daughter, Chelle, is the measuring stick. She was a little girl in 3rd grade when Nelson started his knob year (freshman).  She is now a young lady in 6th grade and about 12 inches taller. The photos tell the story best. During the 2007-08 school year she always brought a treasured stuffed animal on our visits to The Citadel. Now she brings a book.

My oldest son and my youngest child have shared a very special bond since she was a baby and he was the protective 10-year-old brother. For a recent language arts assignment, Chelle was asked to write about the person she admires most and use the lyrics for a song.  She wrote about her oldest brother and composed a song for him since she couldn’t find one to sum up her admiration. As she sang it for me this morning, a tear came to her eye. I had a lump in my throat as well.

Last night, I attended a production of Theater of War presented at Emory University. The production is making it’s way around the country. Through the ancient readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes the audience hears how the warrior and his/her family can be affected by war both physically and psychologically. The production is supported by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the USO.

Chelle,Nelson and Dorie on Corps Day Weekend, March 2011. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Listening to my daughter sing of her admiration for her brother this morning after attending the performance of Theater of War last night it struck me that we stand in a long line of military families. For thousands of years, families have sent their loved ones of to do battle, never sure if they will see their son or daughter again. We will enter that ancient tradition once our oldest goes through his officer training.

My 12-year-old daughter tears up during prayer time in her youth group at church just thinking about her older brother joining the Army. I listen to the stories of my fellow Citadel Ya Ya’s as they tell of the jumping in happy anticipation every time the phone rings in the hope that it is their child calling from over seas.

For the past 10 years I have studied traumatic stress and it’s affect on people exposed to trauma. My last year at Columbia Theological Seminary, I developed a model of chaplaincy for journalists of all faiths or none at all who cover traumatic events. This work has offered me the opportunity to meet leaders in the field of traumatic stress studies like Dr. Frank Ochberg, Dr. Jonathan Shay, and Dr. Steven Southwick, as well as individuals who have a traumatic stress diagnosis. During this time, I have had the honor and privilege to have attended conferences hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

Family photo, November 2010. Photo by Stanley Leary.

I now serve on the board of the nonprofit, Care For The Troops, an organization that teaches civilian therapists about military culture so we will all be more sensitive to the needs of members of the military and their families.

My studies in the area of traumatic stress began years before my son decided the military is the career for him.  I’ve lectured to faith-based communities and journalism programs about traumatic stress.  I have come to realize that sometimes as a mom, you can know too much.

My son has received an excellent education and training at The Citadel and in the Army ROTC program there.  I know he is as prepared as anyone can be to enter the U.S. Army.  I also know it will still be tough.

Graduation is a month away.  My son will report for officer training June 8.  After that who knows.

I do know I can draw on the strength of my friends and fellow military moms to get us through, just as generations of families before us have done.

Previous entries by Dorie Griggs:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

How The Citadel “Ya-Yas” Came to Be

Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

The Citadel: BVA’s and  Summerall Guards

The Citadel: Recognition Day and Ring Weekend

Care Packages for Cadets: The Citadel Heroes Project

The Citadel Bond Renews Parents’ Long Time Friendships

The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs

The Citadel: Saying Good-Bye, But Always Connected

Everybody Processes Grief Differently

“Everybody processes grief differently” some need to talk, others need quiet. As a journalist, I needed to acknowledge the tragedies of this week and find resources to help.

That wisdom comes from my friend with a masters in divinity, Dorie Griggs. I emailed her Friday looking for guidance on my reporting after learning the news that a mother and military spouse was accused of killing her two teenage children while her husband was on an overseas assignment.

The Tampa Bay community was already raw with emotion.

For the MacDill Air Force Base “family” of military and civilian personnel, the cavalcade of events started a week ago Friday with the loss of Col. David Haar, commander of MacDill’s 6th Air Mobility Wing Maintenance Group. His death was from natural causes, but it was unexpected. His loss came just as his MacDill team was starting a week-long exercise on Operational Readiness.

The community was further impacted by Monday’s shootout in a St. Petersburg neighborhood that left two police dead, a U.S. marshal wounded, the suspect dead and a house destroyed.

Just as the St. Petersburg officers were being memorialized, across the bay authorities were releasing details about Julie Schenecker who reportedly admitted to deputies that she shot and killed her two children, Calyx Schenecker, 16, and Powers Beau Schenecker, 13. Their father, Army Col. Parker Schenecker, is assigned to MacDill’s Central Command and was in Qatar at the time.

I could see people trying to make sense out of these unexplainable events as they wrote comments on local blogs and Facebook pages. Here again Dorie offered me balance.

“A lot of things just don’t make sense” and trying to apply reason to an illogical act can be frustrating, time consuming and unsuccessful.

What got lost in this week’s tragic events – Friday marked the 31st Anniversary of the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn as the buoy tender was leaving Tampa Bay. The Coast Guard lost 50 crew members that day, Jan. 28, 1980.

Dorie’s specialty is working with reporters who cover traumatic events. I was not traumatized, but I was concerned that my reporting not add to the community’s  open wounds. She warned against speculation especially as people seek to find a motivation or reason for events. More importantly, Dorie assured me that it’s okay to not have the answers.

Bottom line, everyone is going to have to deal with these tragedies individually. My instinct as a journalist is to find resources for people who may need help dealing with this collective loss.

The VA offers advice on The Effects of Community Violence on Children.

Dorie pointed me to The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma which offers a wealth of material:

Resources for journalists covering violence

How news coverage of trauma impacts the public

Violence: Comparing Reporting and Reality

Unraveling Media and Trauma Connections

And there’s a Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard report on Trauma in the Aftermath.

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