Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11 Ceremony Went Great

It was really great today to be doing something I like to do and am good at. The event came off perfectly--we started at 310pm had four songs, two speeches, two prayers, the reading of the names of the dead here at COB Adder/Tallil Ali. It is wonderful to be the emcee of an event with all military participants--they do what they are told!

Anyway, so the songs, prayers and speeches were spot on length and when I announced the moment of silence, the base loudspeakers announced the moment of silence for the whole base 10 seconds later. My perfectionist event manager friends Kristine Chin, Nancy Vonada and Karen Coker, amazing as they are, would be jealous of hitting those marks!

The event ended seven hours ago and I am still buzzing. I was the first speaker. The other speaker was an Air Force colonel who talked about being in the underground control center in Colorado for the US and Canadian Air Forces when the 9/11 attacks happened. He is a passionate speaker. He talked about how the military responded to the attacks and what it was like to be at the nerve center of air defense.

I spoke as a civilian on 9/11 who came back to serve. We complemented each other very well. Here's the text of my speech--5 minutes, no more, no less.

Good afternoon. I am Sergeant Neil Gussman of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation. On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans died. I am going to tell you about one of my friends who lived through the 9/11 attacks and something about why I am here in Iraq today.

Eight years ago I was a civilian, about as civilian as I could be, and now I am serving with you. So how much of a civilian was I? On that fateful Tuesday morning I was 48 years old. I first enlisted in January 1972 and had served till July of 1984. My wife and I had just adopted our fourth child and the oldest of our four children was 12.

I was the communications manager of one of those dot-com internet businesses that burned money faster than Pentagon procurement and sometimes had the lifespan of a firefly.
We had the best computers in our Philadelphia offices and we all watched in horror on those expensive screens as the World Trade Center Towers fell into heaps. I have never felt so helpless. For years before the attack, I had gone to New York almost every month on business and had worked with many editors with offices near the World Trade Center. I tried to call some of my friends in New York, but no one could get through.

One of the editors I tried to call was Helga Tilton—a thin, tough woman in her late 50s who was the editor-in-chief a trade magazine located on Rector Street, just two blocks south of Ground Zero. Helga was born in Frankfurt Germany in 1943. Frankfurt was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Nazi Germany. She grew up in ruins, deprivation and poverty. But she worked hard in school, studied English and wanted to live in America. By the early 70s she finished a PhD at New York University and was fluent enough to get a job as a writer in America.

When the twin towers fell, Helga got out of the building knowing from her grim childhood that when one building falls it can take down others. Helga had married a very nervous American who was an NYC native. She decided it was her duty to make sure he was all right. So she put on her walking shoes, grabbed her purse and walked past Ground Zero almost six miles north to Central Park West.

I talked to Helga the next day. She was fine. Her husband was a wreck. At that time I thought about enlisting, but I was too old then. Even with 11 years prior service and a waiver, I was too old.

That was then.

In 2006, the rules changed. The enlistment age went up to 42. I could re-enlist, but doubt held me back for another year.

But over the winter, I decided I really could serve again. I never thought it would be easy to come back at 54. In late April 2007 I passed my enlistment physical and ASVAB test. The only thing I was waiting for was an age waiver that thankfully took until July. But the biggest hurdle I would face was just two weeks away. Since the early 90s I have been an avid bicycle racer. On May 9, 2007, I was in a downhill race just about to pass for the win and touched wheels with another rider at 51 mph. Within a half hour I was Med-Evaced from the scene. I had broken four ribs, my right shoulder blade and collarbone and my nose. I cracked the first two vertebra in my neck and smashed the 7th. The next day I had emergency surgery to replace the smashed C-7 with a bone from a cadaver.

The injuries made me even more sure I wanted to serve. If I was going to risk my life, I wanted it to be for something more than a trophy. I got the waiver on July 13th. I told the recruiter I could enlist in August because the neurosurgeon said I would be out of the neck and chest brace I was in on August 2nd. I enlisted on August 16, 2007, at age 54 after a 23-year break in service.

But at the same time I was recovering and trying to enlist, Helga got sick. She was something of a health nut, but got pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive forms. She survived so much it was sad to think that the end of her life, like the beginning, was marked by death and ruins.

I talked to Helga and her husband a few times during her last months. She was calm and courageous facing a hopeless diagnosis while I was working to recover my health to join the Army during a war. An irony not lost on Helga. She died on November 14, 2007. For me, Helga will always be the face I see when I think of September 11. America inspires people to do great things, to survive the worst circumstances.

I am glad I could serve once more in honor of Helga, my own immigrant grandparents, and everyone who loves this country. I am very happy to be here today, a citizen soldier, serving with other soldiers who love America and are willing to make the huge sacrifices necessary to defend it.

Thank you.

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