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Airmen remember pain of Sept. 11

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AFPN) -- Time is said to heal all wounds, but how much time heals emptiness left behind when more than 3,000 lives are instantaneously and mercilessly cut short?

Two years have passed since Sept. 11, yet servicemembers here, like all Americans, continue to sort through the pain of personal and symbolic loss.

On that day, Maj. Dona Marie Iversen, a New York native, focused on war college classes in Providence, R.I. During class, a Marine lieutenant colonel announced a plane had struck the World Trade Center.

“We thought it was just part of a military war game at first,” Iversen said. “When we learned it was real, I asked to leave the college and was allowed to out-process.”

Iversen, a nurse and deputy team chief for the Aeromedical Evacuation Control Team here, cleared the college an hour later, then received permission from her Reserve unit at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., to report to ground zero. She spent seven weeks there.

For the first 96 hours, she helped with search and rescue efforts. She arrived on scene within hours, but the damage had been done.

“There were only minimal medical or nursing requirements left to do,” she said.

She next worked for the city’s emergency management office of as a military liaison to the mayor’s office. There, she advised the mayor’s staff on the city’s available medical facilities and resources.

Although saving lives is a nurse’s natural instinct, Iversen said she felt helpless as time and circumstance worked against medical teams. The attack’s proximity has left her feeling uneasy.

“I wouldn’t say I’m paranoid, but I do observe my surroundings much more than before,” she said. “I’m just thankful New Yorkers are good people. We may still be a little shell-shocked, but no American is immune to terrorism. Each one of us has terrorism on the forefront of our minds.”

Another native New Yorker, Master Sgt. Joseph Rizzo, remembers Staff Sgt. Andy Brunn’s death. Brunn was a New York City firefighter, a 10-year NYC police veteran and an airman in Rizzo’s Reserve unit in Newburgh, N.Y. While trying to help others, Brunn got trapped in the World Trade Center’s Tower 2. Rizzo has since been trapped in remembrance.

“He was a teammate, but it’s still like losing a brother or another close family member,” said Rizzo, first sergeant for the 484th Air Expeditionary Wing here and deployed from the New York Air National Guard’s 105th Air Wing in Newburgh. “That’s the way it is in the military. You bond with those you work with and become family.”

Rizzo said Brunn was new to firefighting, a recent graduate of the firefighter academy, and he was already working toward becoming a lieutenant. It was that kind of personal drive that would have made Brunn a great first sergeant, Rizzo said.

“At the first sergeant’s academy … we were asked to name a person who we’d like to see become a first sergeant,” Rizzo said. “In my opinion, that would have been Andy. He was dedicated to his work and to helping others.”

Rizzo still keeps in close contact with Brunn’s family.

At the Pentagon on 9-11, the new executive officer to the Air Force chief of staff had a memorable first day on the job. Col. Jack Egginton was in a staff meeting with Gen. John P. Jumper and other senior leaders when he learned an airplane had crashed into the WTC.

“I briefed the boss that something was up in New York, and we piped the news feed into the conference room,” said Egginton, now the 379th AEW commander here. Shortly after the second plane hit, the meeting adjourned and Egginton accompanied the general to the Air Force secretary’s office.

“We received word that another aircraft was headed toward Washington,” Egginton said. “Within just a few minutes, the aircraft stuck the Pentagon. I felt the building shake upon impact.”

Later, a witness told Egginton the aircraft had attempted to hit another side of the Pentagon where Egginton was located. Apparently lacking the angle, the aircraft instead circled around and hit the Pentagon’s southwest side.

“Had the aircraft stayed on its original course, the Air Force’s senior (leaders) and I would not be here today,” he said.

“(Later) we escorted the chief and secretary to the Air Force Operations Center in the basement of the Pentagon, (through) smoke, alarms and throngs of people heading for the exits," Egginton said.

For safety reasons, senior leaders briefly evacuated by helicopter. As they lifted off, Egginton witnessed “up close and personal, the burning Pentagon, and the hundreds of people running back and forth into it, risking their lives to save others.”

It is a scene that gives the colonel great focus today.

“Like all Americans, I take this very personally. I am an American, and because of that fact, they were trying to kill me. So, now it’s our turn,” he said. “It is a great honor to be part of the 379th AEW as we fight this global war on terrorism. We are engaged in a noble and worthy cause in the defense of freedom-loving people around the world.”

On the West Coast, 1st Lt. Elise V. Strachan was serving her 42nd day on active duty. She arrived for work at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and found the normally loud and congested office to be motionless and silent. She walked into the break room where co-workers had gathered, and together they watched clips of the first plane, Flight 11, crashing into the north tower. The next day, the impact of Flight 11 hit her even harder.

To pass time while waiting in line to enter the base, Strachan called friends back home in Boston on her cell phone. A shock came when she learned Jessica Sachs, a close friend from college, had been on Flight 11.

“I had no idea the impact one day would have on my personal life and Air Force career,” said Strachan, the 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron’s vehicle management flight commander here.

About 700 miles southeast of Fairchild at Hill AFB, Utah, Master Sgt. Lawrence Cottle prepared to assemble airmen for morning roll call as part of his duties as the 34th Fighter Squadron’s section chief. Just then, an airman informed him about what had happened in New York. Cottle rushed to the packed break room where everyone saw the second plane hit. Later, he composed himself and called the group together for roll.

“Millions of Americans feel totally helpless right now. All they can do is donate blood, send money or just watch TV and get pissed off,” Cottle said to the stunned formation. “We actually are (among the) few Americans privileged enough to have a job that allows us to pay back the people that did this to us.”

Cottle is now superintendent of the 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Operations Center here and deployed from Luke AFB, Ariz.,

Airman Nelson Aquino is a C-130 Hercules environmental and electrical systems specialist assigned to the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here. Growing up in Manhattan, he could see the twin towers and Empire State Building from his boyhood apartment building rooftop.

Aquino planned to meet friends Sept. 11, only blocks from the towers. Instead Aquino awoke that morning to his mother’s panic-filled voice.

“At first I thought, ‘Again?’” Aquino said, glimpsing at the television and recalling the trade center’s 1994 attack. He thought about a cousin and his mom’s friends who worked in the buildings, then tried to comfort his mom.

“(Moments later) I looked on the screen and saw a fireball and turned my head and saw the same thing out my window. It felt like the whole neighborhood screamed at once,” he said. “Mom yelled for me to come outside. I rushed and got there just as the first tower fell. Some time passed, and we saw the second tower fall. It felt like the end of the world.”

At the time, Aquino had not decided on a career.

“I always wanted to join the Air Force as a kid,” said Aquino, who is deployed from Pope AFB, N.C. “I don't think Sept. 11 made up my mind, but it’s a big bonus to be a part of the team that is punishing the people (who) stole my city's soul, and being part of the team that is getting it back.”