W hat we can all learn from the legacy of Stephen Siller, life after 9/11 and readjusting after war.
On that cloudless September morning, in conditions pilots define as “severe clear,” I watched as most likely you did, the two hour period leading to the moments of morbid, albeit almost poetic symmetry, where a final thread in the fabric of America and modern society collapsed on itself. They were both gone. Reduced to a pile of fire, steel, paper and people.
One of those people was a firefighter from Brooklyn named Stephen Siller. Stephen’s fate was not different from the other 343 firefighters who perished alongside him, but his final actions were a testament to a life well lived and indelibly stamped with character and fortitude.
As the foundation now existing in his name says, “Stephen had everything to live for, a great wife, five wonderful children, devoted extended family and friends. Stephen’s life and heroic death serve as reminder to us all to live life to the fullest and to spend our time here on earth doing good – this is his legacy.”
For over a decade after returning from Iraq, working as a combat cameraman during Hurricane Katrina and eventually a photojournalist for the AP in New York, I crawled through my daily existence angry, unpredictable, irrevocably changed and unwilling to accept that my emotional fabric was frayed and torn by proxy of 9/11.
For 12 years I went undiagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) until this past January when the culmination of six failed relationships, an arrest in NYC (hiding it enough to graduate the Police Academy) and countless interpersonal difficulties led me to walk into the VA in my native hometown Miami, Florida and seek treatment with the PC Team. I thought that somehow because there wasn’t a drug or alcohol issue that I would be told, “You are good to go.” I wasn’t. Not even close.
Oddly enough, by walking this new path towards recovery and head on assault of personal demons, the decision was made this spring that I would return to New York City in September and see the 9/11 Memorial. Days became weeks and the weeks became months, as weeks often do when a little over a week ago an email arrived from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) about a community run in New York City. I immediately wrote to Paul Rieckhoff, Founder and CEO of IAVA, because my gut said this event was a path towards closure; not for my experience in combat but for the pain I carried living in NYC, literally in the shadow of Ground Zero for four years and never confronting the feelings and sadness that permeated following 9/11.
There were a series of pending airline reservation windows still open on my iPhone when Paul said, “Let’s make this happen and get you up here.” With my airborne infantry days long over, and in an effort to save myself any embarrassment at age 40, I signed up as a walker for the race. However, that all changed too.
Something special happens when surrounded by fellow vets in that crisp, early fall chill that is 100 percent New York. The energy is contagious and without description. Thousands of people, literally from all over the world, participating in an event to mark life and living, not loss. The opening descent and run into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel reminds you that this will be a test and we know where there is a descent, there is always a climb; just like road marches. This is the perfect metaphor for us. We have all been tested and it’s why you are in the fold, a member of IAVA and reading this in the first place.
During the run, Team IAVA found ourselves next to the NYPD Emergency Services Unit (their version of SWAT) at one point, running in full chemical protective masks and body armor (yes, with the heavy plates). I quickly made sure any thought of walking needed to unass my thought process. Through gentle rises and turns, a steady pace and a check of my 220 pound gut, that cool air started to show itself again like a reward along with the gentle blue glow of daylight mixed with orange sodium bulbs glistening off the highly glazed and gritty tile walls letting you know that it’s getting close. Then it happens. A full rush of air as you rise from under the waters of New York Harbor to the sight of firefighters holding banners with pictures of all their fallen brethren. All of them, their free hand extended in acknowledgement and appreciation.
The sight of the Freedom Tower’s south facade is sharp like a surgeon’s knife piercing the sky in defiance. Fuck you enemies of America, version 2.0. The sounds of the bagpipes and thousands of spectators cheering YOU on. The homecoming you might not have gotten happens here. I crawled. I walked. I ran. I hope you will too. See you next year and never stop chasing the light. It’s indeed at the end of the tunnel.