This is an AAR for the 9/11 Memorial Light held in Shanskville NY on Saturday, 9/10/16. I have wanted to do a 9/11 event for several years and my plans to do so always fell through in the past which made me doubly committed to doing a 9/11 event in 2016. I had originally planned on a NYC event, but ended up in Shanskville instead. As meaningful as it would have been in New York, I’m glad I was in Shanksville, for reasons you’ll understand later. The nuts and bolts of the AAR are in regular font, some further reflections on my experience and the grey man are in italics.
After signing up for the event, I went about getting prepared. While there was obviously a pretty large group signed up, the facebook event page was fairly quiet. When there weren’t any strong team weight ideas, I contacted a buddy who created and welded one together for me, and he did a fabulous job.
To make it more relevant for the event, I painted the initials of all 40 people who died on United Flight 93 on the back of the weight. On the day of the event I got up early and drove the 4 hours from my home to the start point.
The class is nearly 40 people, with 80% of the group being first timers. This surprises Cadre Montreal, and I think everyone else. The group is friendly, cheerful, and motivated and I look forward to being with them. It’s a mixed group. There is a contingent of guys in their 40’s like me, several groups of clearly fit younger folks in the 25-35 range, and group of 8-10 ROTC candidates in their late teens to early 20’s. There are a LOT of coupons. Some of the group stares at them, confused. In events with experienced GRTs, folks tend to be assertive about grabbing coupons but this group is tentative. A few of us encourage the others to grab the weight and go and we get moving.
Shanksville is a small, small town of about 250 people in rural Pennsylvania, content to live their quiet lives, which were thrust into the public eye when United Flight 93 was brought down there. Flight 93 had been hijacked like the other 3 planes the day. When passengers learned about the other three attacks and realized what the hijackers intended, they made the decision to fight back, hopefully to take control of the plane but at a minimum to prevent the hijackers from crashing the plane on innocent people.
It’s hypothesized the plane was headed to the Capitol Building where Congress was in session and where a crash would kill many people and cripple government functioning. During the melee, the plane crashed in a field a few miles from Shanksville, shaking items off of shelves and burying itself 35-45 feet into the ground, killing all onboard instantly. Despite the horrific loss of life, it is uncontested that the actions of the passengers averted a completed attack that would have killed many, many more.
Our “welcome party” was a little different than most. We started at the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, where the chief of the fire company talked about their response that day, as they were the first responders on scene and then further assisted during both the investigation and recovery efforts.
Then, our group set about completing a monstrous number of reps and various exercises…
…while being sprayed with a fire hose.
Given that the temperature was in the 80s…
…I considered this a fabulous way to start the event.
Many fire department and community members turned out to watch.
Once done, we headed towards the Memorial, a few miles away.
The first leg of the day is mostly uphill. Many people grab coupons. There are 2 litters with sandbags on them, water cans, buckets filled with water, concrete pills, a backpack med kit, you name it we probably had it. I try to keep a coupon in hand most of the time. I’m not particularly strong, I’m not particularly fast, my grip tires quickly in comparison with some of the younger folks, but my contribution to the group is in work capacity and I try to have a coupon most of the time. The coupons are bulky and oddly shaped, and the litters each take 4 people.
When I wear out with one coupon I pass it off, rest a minute, and take something else. Many people have coupons, but with 40 people there are folks that don’t as well. I notice some folks who don’t seem to try to carry much. I suspect many don’t understand the GRT norm of seeking to do the “harder things”.
The Memorial itself is spare and beautiful. We’ve heard some of history of the crash and how the Memorial represents what happened and the people who died. We each are carrying at least 1 bio and photo from Flight 93. I carried 3 photos and bios, and I find their names and reflect on what I know of their death and heroism, and of the lives they had and lost. Because it is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks there are many visitors. Some are somber, some talk to us. Cadre Montreal gives us a time to reconvene but allows us to run late while exploring the Memorial. He talks about how this is an event he tries to do every year and I can tell he is moved by being here.
We are running late when we leave the memorial. It’s getting dark. Expecting to be done earlier I wore my prescription sunglasses but didn’t bring my regular glasses to change out. I try to put on my headlamp but realize that despite putting new batteries in it recently, I must have left the light on because the batteries are dead. We’re walking through the dark, and my sunglasses make it darker still. I can’t see very well. I help carry one of the litters most of the rest of the way, I manage to get with a group that are mostly the same height so we put it on our shoulders most of the way. While I can’t see, I can hear well enough to realize that it’s been pretty much the same group on the litter and we’ve had a hard time getting folks to switch out with us. How is this possible? There are 40 people here, why aren’t there more people willing to switch in?
I’m tired, we all are. I take my glasses off to clean them and see that some folks up ahead of us, carrying the lightest weight or nothing at all, and they haven’t switched in to help despite some requests. I get angry and make a comment under my breath. Another person next to me hears this and agrees he’s noticed also and he’s angry as well.
As we head back I reflect on the things I’ve heard today that I didn’t know before. I’ve heard new stories about the Flight 93 passengers and their fight. I’ve heard stories of horror and heroism and of the warmth of the people of Shanksville, who supported the federal agencies without complaint or pay and provided respite and supplies for many of them. I’ve heard how resident volunteers sifted through tons of dirt for personal possessions, and how volunteers and the coroner responded with sensitivity and thought about how to handle the recovered remains and crash site with respect and care. While I had heard a lot about the Flight 93 before the attacks, I can no longer separate my understanding of the attacks from what I now know of the people of Shanksville. I have a deeper understanding, and it inspires me. One of those with us today is a local who saw the plane come over her head. The Shanksville residents talk mostly about the passengers and their heroism rather than themselves and I am in awe of their humble and giving nature. Having grown up in a rural area I’ve seen how small communities depend on and look out for each other, and seeing this again reminds me of the person I want to be and how I want to interact with the world. I remind myself I need to strive to be more like the residents of Shanksville.
And in this vein of thinking I decide to not be the GRT who complains. I’ve seen how corrosive that can be to a group during an event. I won’t be that guy, I’ll carry more than my share and be grateful for the opportunity. I remember my first Challenge, when exhausted, I felt I could no longer carry much. If I’m honest with myself, I was the gray man for part of that event, the blue falcon, and I didn’t know then that I needed to get out of my head and try harder. I didn’t know that if I threw myself more into the team, things would have been better for me and everyone else. I was “that guy” once, those guys are “that guy” now. They’ll learn just like I did, but I need to cut them some slack, because some people cut me some slack, nearly everyone is new today, and I need to pass it on. Who knows, maybe I’m even wrong. Maybe they weren’t gray manning at all, it’s not like I can see much. I’ve got to let go of this, we all do. So, I get back to cracking jokes and quickly and smoothly we get back on track. Unspoken, everyone on the team did the same thing. I’m aware that our group has averted a crisis of attitude that if allowed to fester, could have derailed things and damaged the experience for all of us. We considered that path for a moment, but abandoned it equally as quickly for all the right reasons. My part was to remain positive, and everyone else did the same thing. It’s a light event, but we’re all tiring more quickly as we head back into Shanksville proper. We’re carrying the litter at hip level again and my grip gives out, so I trade with someone next to me and walk beside them the final few hundred yards. I don’t need much time to recover, just a minute or two and I can feel my arm coming back for another round, so I ask to trade back in, and the guy next to me refuses and says cheerfully he’s fine. Another 50 yards and I can hear him start to struggle. I ask again, and he says, true story, “I’m fine, it’s enough to have you walking with me”. I’m touched by this and take my sunglasses off to see who he is and I realize he’s one of the younger folks I was resentful of earlier. He’s stepped back to join us. He made my night. It is my favorite endex ever.
The Shanksville Fire Department is still lit up as we walk to it. It’s full of people, and I realize they’ve made food for all of us. There are hamburgers and hot dogs, chips, things to drink, and we’re all grateful. These people we don’t know who have already given so much, have turned out to give dinner to us. 40 of us, complete strangers. I’m struck again by their generosity. Thanks Shanksville, you made my night. This was my favorite endex ever.
- Shanksville 9/11 (2016) Memorial Light AAR + Grey Man Reflections - October 14, 2016
- GORUCK Red Dawn 2016 AAR - July 25, 2016
- Shadowing & Events With Children AAR - June 7, 2016