By Rick Hampson and Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
The terrorist attack on America 10 years ago is one of the few events in U.S. history big enough to claim its date as its name. But Sept. 11, 2001, did not change the nation as abruptly as Dec. 7, 1941, or as dramatically as July 4, 1776. This time, there was no declaration of war or independence, just a warning that if we altered our ways, the terrorists would have won.
And so we entered a new era slowly, incrementally. Day by day. Person by person.
A decade later, we can see the changes in our nation by looking at the changes in our people - some who were close to the cataclysm, some far from it.
What follows are the stories of 20 such Americans. They suggest 9/11 was like a rock thrown in a pond, its impact rippling out until all the water is roiled.
Told as a series of snapshots in time, these 20 stories form a pointillist narrative of how America got from then to now, through invasion and investigation, reconstruction, rehabilitation and revival, tightening security at home and constant warfare abroad.
In their tales, we hear an echo of our own concerns about the next terrorist attack, the struggle between liberty and security, the pat-down at the gate.
When the stories begin on 9/11, two of the subjects are still in high school. Another, in his sixth decade, is carried dead from the World Trade Center. In the years that follow, we come to understand a bit of the orphan's grief, the warrior's courage, the priest's faith, the convert's curiosity, the zealot's recklessness.
We go on a widow's first date and share a bereft couple's surprise that, against all odds, they have something to bury of a lost son.
We learn what motivated the first American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in the Afghanistan War, how a fireman who survived Ground Zero enlisted to fight in Iraq and what happened once he got there.
A daughter, in losing her mother, discovers her true calling. One mother fights to clear her son's name; another discovers that hers was the mysterious "man in the red bandanna" who led fellow office workers to safety at the Trade Center.
The ripples of 9/11 spread far from where the four hijacked planes crashed in New York City and Arlington, Va., and near Shanksville, Pa. They affect the post of poet laureate of the state of New Jersey; the right of a public worker to burn a sacred book; and possibly even the movement to legalize gay marriage.
A photo of a spontaneous hug helps decide the 2004 presidential election. A former captive of Muslim terrorists in a distant land lives to see most of her captors destroyed - and to help some of those who survived.
In such a decade, plans often come to naught. A patriotic teenager who wants to learn more about his nation's attackers ends up accepting their religion. A young woman, moved by 9/11 to enlist in the Army and discover herself, suffers debilitating wounds that make her wonder who she really is.
A Pentagon worker looking forward to an active retirement is so seriously burned that she can neither climb stairs nor lift her 12-pound bowling ball.
This is what it was like in the decade after Sept. 11, the date claimed by catastrophe, the door from then to now.
Mike Spann: First to fall in Afghanistan
A 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer, Johnny "Mike" Spann goes to Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight the Taliban, the Islamist regime that provided al-Qaeda with a base from which to attack the U.S. He's at one of the crucial battles of the war, then becomes its first American combat fatality - and an inspiration to his Alabama hometown.
By Rick Hampson USA TODAY
9.11.2001: More than most Americans, Mike Spann, a CIA paramilitary officer and former Marine officer, realizes life has been changed by the terror attacks. He knows the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against those who sheltered him in Afghanistan will demand the skills of people like him.
9.19.2001: Spann e-mails his father, Johnny, in Winfield, Ala., his feelings about the coming war: "Support your government and military, especially when bodies start coming home. Our way of life is at stake. We must fight for it. ... What everyone needs to understand is these fellows hate you. They hate you because you are an American."
10.1.2001: Spann prepares to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. He has decided to volunteer even though he is married (to a fellow CIA employee) and the father of three young children. He tells his father that after the attacks by al-Qaeda, which operated from Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban regime, he owes it not just to his nation, but to his family.
10.18.2001: Shannon Spann, Mike's wife, spends a typical night at home in Northern Virginia with the children. She helps one child with homework, reads the Bible and thinks about Mike's safe return, writing in her journal, "I can't wait until we're all together." She is caring for Mike's two daughters from his first marriage - Alison, 9, and Emily, 4 - as well as her son with Mike, 6-month-old Jake.
11.24.2001: For weeks, Spann has been with the Northern Alliance, traveling through rugged and dangerous terrain, sometimes on horseback. With their military situation in northern Afghanistan becoming critical, hundreds of pro-Taliban fighters - most of them non-Afghans - surrender near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
11.25.2001: Mike Spann is interrogating POWs at a makeshift jail. He tries without success to question an English-speaking prisoner whom he does not realize is a fellow American: John Walker Lindh.
Moments later, a riot breaks out. Spann is killed in the fighting, becoming the war's first U.S. combat fatality.
12.1.2001: Winfield, a Bible Belt town of about 5,000, mourns the loss of a local hero. Spann is remembered as an all-American kid who got good grades in school, went to church and on weekends drank a little beer and raised a little hell. Once distant, "the conflict has become very personal," writes editor Tracy Estes in the local Journal Record.
12.6.2001: Spann is remembered at a church memorial service in Winfield. His daughter Alison is accompanied by her grandfather to the altar, where he reads a letter she's written: "Daddy, I will miss you dearly. I will miss you, but I know you're going to a better place. Thank you for making the world a better place. Love, your dear daughter Alison." Later, she places the letter in her father's casket.
12.10.2001: Spann is buried in Section 34, site 2359, at Arlington National Cemetery. Wife Shannon tells mourners that after the 9/11 attacks "he didn't separate serving his country from serving his family. When Mike took the oath to defend the Constitution ... he took that oath to our family as well. He just really thought it was his duty as a father to protect his children from terrorists."
2.13.2002: The father of accused Taliban member John Walker Lindh is rebuffed when he tries to shake hands with Mike Spann's father, Johnny. After his son's arraignment in Alexandria, Va., Frank Lindh approaches Spann. But Spann does not shake his hand. Spann and Mike's mother later tell reporters the defendant is a traitor. They believe their son died as the result of a prisoners' plot of which Lindh must have been aware. A news video has surfaced that shows Spann talking to Lindh shortly before the riot.
7.15.2002: Lindh pleads guilty to charges with maximum penalties of 20 years. The plea bargain, which stuns a packed courtroom, averts a trial on 10 counts that could have brought life in prison. Lindh, 21, admits to U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III that he illegally supported the Taliban as an infantryman. Shannon Spann says that in pleading guilty, Lindh "agreed with the government that his conduct was terrorist activity." But Spann's father says his son and other Americans battling terrorists "have been let down."
10.4.2002: At Lindh's sentencing, Johnny Spann says Lindh bears some responsibility for his son's death: "My grandchildren would love to know their dad would be back in 20 years. The punishment doesn't fit the crime." Ellis says he wouldn't have approved the plea bargain if the government showed any evidence of his culpability in Spann's death. A teary Lindh tells Ellis he had "no role" in it.
9.14.2003: A new biography of Lindh questions whether he was really unaware of plans for the prison rebellion in which Spann was killed. Mark Kukis writes in My Heart Became Attached: The Strange Journey of John Walker Lindh: "It seems impossible that (Lindh) would not have known people in the (prison) basement were armed and plotting a revolt when he sat before Spann, saying nothing that might warn Spann."
12.18.2007: Mike Spann's father says he opposes an attempt by Lindh's parents to get President Bush to commute their son's 20-year sentence and set him free.
5.28.2010: Alison Spann graduates from high school in Winfield, where she lives with her grandparents. People remember the words Alison wrote for her father's memorial service, and that his death was not her last tragedy. Shortly after he was killed, her mother, Johnny's ex-wife, died of cancer.
6.7.2010: Afghanistan passes Vietnam as America's longest continuous war. In Winfield, people remember the war's first U.S. fatality. Almost everyone appreciates Mike Spann's sacrifice, but they disagree on whether the war should continue.
Spann's father says it's imperative to keep the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan before 9/11, out of power. Dale Weeks, one of Mike's boyhood friends, isn't so sure: "It's time to start bringing people home. We've done about all we can do."
Ted Olson: A change of course
Barbara Olson, a conservative lawyer and pundit and wife of former solicitor general Ted Olson,is a passenger aboard one of the hijacked jetliners. After her death, her husband finds apolitically unlikely mate, and takes some unexpected stands on issues of the day.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
9.11.2001: Barbara Olson, a conservative lawyer and pundit and the wife of former solicitor general Ted Olson, is a passenger on American Flight 77 when it's hijacked after takeoff from Washington Dulles International Airport en route to Los Angeles. She covertly calls her husband, reporting that the hijackers have knives and box-cutters. She says the plane is flying over houses.
Ted, who turns 61 today, tells her about the morning's two previous hijackings and crashes. Then the call is cut off. Moments later, Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.
9.17.2001: There's an empty chair on the set when ABC's late-night comedy show Politically Incorrect resumes following the 9/11 attacks. It's in memory of Barbara Olson, who was flying to Los Angeles to be a guest on the show. She was 47.
5.4.2002: Kentucky Derby Day. Ted Olson takes in the races at Churchill Downs with Lady Booth, a 41-year-old lawyer from Kentucky. It's a surprising match: Booth is a Democrat and Olson the conservative Republican who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case that effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2001.
10.21.2005: Olson asks Booth to marry him, and she says yes, according to TheWashington Post. They have been dating for more than three years. They set their wedding date for exactly a year later.
10.21.2006: Olson and Booth marry at a resort in California's Napa Valley. Guests include Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, former justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and David Boies, Olson's opponent in Bush v. Gore. It's her first marriage, his fourth.
5.26.2009: Olson and Boies say they'll join forces in a battle to legalize same-sex marriage. They'll stage a federal court challenge to California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage. Olson and Boies will represent two same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses because of Prop 8. Some gay-marriage advocates hope the case can establish a federal constitutional right; others fear it's the wrong time and place for such a challenge, and that a loss could cripple the movement.
7.25.2009: In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Olson is asked about his marriage to a woman who supported Barack Obama for president. Has Booth influenced his political thinking? "She thinks she has!" he replies. "She's working on me. ... We don't learn anything if we surround ourselves (with) people who think the same way we do."
3.15.2010: Olson lashes out at an Internet ad by a conservative advocacy group, Keep America Safe, criticizing Justice Department lawyers who previously did pro bono work representing terror suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay. The ad refers to the Department of Justice as the "Department of Jihad." Keep America Safe's founders include Dick Cheney's daughter Liz and Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot of American Flight 77 on 9/11. But Olson tells Newsweek he has the "greatest respect" for lawyers who represented the detainees and says they acted "consistent with the finest traditions of the legal profession."
8.4.2010: A federal judge overturns Proposition 8, ruling that it violates both the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. But an appeals court puts the judge's injunction against enforcing the law on hold.
8.18.2010: Olson says he supports President Obama's view that Muslims should be allowed to build an Islamic center and mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero. The conservative Republican lawyer tells MSNBC: "It may not make me popular with some people, but I think probably the president was right about this. We don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith."
8.19.2010: Lady Booth is asked if she has had an impact on her Republican husband's thinking on some issues. "In my innermost thoughts, I like to think he thought that on some level, but Ted's never said that," she tells TheNew York Times. "He's very proud. He owns his own decisions."
Firefighter Michael Kiefer: Holiday memorials
The following notes were posted on the Legacy.com memorial site for Michael Kiefer, one of 343 New York firefighters killed on 9/11. Written over the past decade by relatives and friends, they mark the years' major holidays, including his birthday, Dec. 5. Kiefer died nine months after being assigned to his first firehouse. He was 25.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
First anniversary of 9/11 (2002)
Today I received my 9/11 bracelet with Michael's name on it. I never met him but I am the mother of 3 boys, the oldest 24. My heart goes out to you and as a mother I will wear this bracelet as if Michael was my own son. He will be in my heart and prayers every single day.
- Debbie Wilkins, Peabody, Mass.
27th Birthday (Dec. 5, 2002)
I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. You are a special angel up there. I remember one year when we were little we called each other on our birthday. So it's my turn to call you. Happy Birthday and know that we all love and think of you every day.
- Erin (Erin Darmody, East Northport, N.Y.)
I am thankful for having you as my BIG brother for 25 years on Earth and all of these years you continue to watch over me. Although I am sad you will not meet your nephew here on Earth, I know in my heart you were with my baby for some time before you sent him to me.
- Kerri Kiefer-Viverito, Franklin Square, N.Y.
Valentine's Day (2006)
Happy Valentine's to the BEST big brother ever! I can't even begin to tell you how big the hole in my heart is ever since you were taken, and it gets bigger with each passing day. ... I still find it hard to believe that I am writing you on a memorial page. This is not the way it is supposed to be. Every time I see the images of the towers collapsed I am sick to my stomach. That is the exact moment we lost you! I love you with all my heart. I will NEVER forget!
- your little sister Lauren
My Dearest Michael,
Another holiday without you. How will we ever get used to this? Easter was a holiday that you always loved most of all because of your deep faith in Jesus. Now you spend your Easters with him and I'm sure you're happy about that, but we miss you so much that we can't accept that you are not here with us. ... Have a peaceful Easter and know that we will be thinking of you all day as we do every day. Rest in peace my beautiful Michael.
- Love, Mommy
Mother's Day (2006)
My dearest Michael tomorrow will be the 5th Mother's Day I will spend without you. I still have the first gift that you made me when you were in Pre-K. It sits on my dresser where it has been ever since you gave it to me. It means more to me then anything ever could. ... I LOVE YOU with all of what's left of my broken heart.
Wishing for the days gone by when we all could be together for the holidays. Even as you grew older you would find a way to stop by with your family if you could. I would always be extra excited if you guys were coming. ... I ask you to send us all some strength to get through another New Year without you.
- Love, Tracy xoxox
(Tracy Benenati, Patchogue, N.Y.)
Memorial Day (2009)
We all are thinking of you even more than normal. You were a great hero who served our country well during the horrible day in 2001! So Michael along with all our Memorial Day & other celebrations you are in our hearts. Thank you for the sacrifice that you made for your country & fellow man!
- Donna Malloy
Fourth of July (2009)
Michael it is time to celebrate our freedom here in the USA. We have many heroes to thank for the right especially you, your fellow firefighter brothers, police & rescue workers who gave their lives that horrible day so that we can continue to be free! Love & miss you
St. Patrick's Day (2010)
Hey Mike, Wishing you were here to celebrate with us the way you should be; in your uniform smiling down 5th Avenue with all your brothers. God Bless, and enjoy your St. Pat's.
- Mike, Malverne, N.Y.
Tim Lambert: Steward of sacred ground
A radio news reporter discovers that he has a special relationship to the place where United Flight 93 crashed on 9/11: His family owns it. For him, it marks the beginning of a decade-long process of deciding how to memorialize the tragedy and the heroism of the passengers.
By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
VIDEO: Honoring the fallen at Flight 93 Memorial
9.11.01: Tim Lambert is working as a radio reporter at WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., when he learns that United Flight 93 has crashed about 150 miles to the west. He thinks, "I bet my dad knows somebody who knows where this is." His father tells him he recognized the site on television: It's land their family owns near the town of Shanksville.
10.6.2001: Lambert and his father visit Shanksville for the first time since Flight 93 crashed nearby. It's Tim's first visit since his grandmother's death more than 20 years ago. Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller takes them to the crash site, which includes 6 of their 160-plus acres. At first, Tim doesn't see any visible wreckage. Then Miller picks up a quarter-size piece of metal, part of the plane. Suddenly everything changes - "like a camera shutter - snap," Lambert thinks. Now, debris is all he can see. "Wire, pieces of metal, paper, scraps from the seat belts."
2.23.2002: Lambert attends a meeting in New Jersey with coroner Miller and families of those lost on Flight 93 to discuss what to do with remains and personal effects from the site. "All I care about is what you want for the site," Lambert tells the families. He meets Debby Borza. Her daughter, Deora Bodley, died in the crash.
9.10.2002: The day before the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, family members of those killed on Flight 93 are allowed to visit the crash site. Lambert is happy to see that some of the hundreds of relatives are smiling; kids are playing in the field. He spots the husband of a flight attendant, whom he remembers from the February family meeting in New Jersey. Then, the man was a wreck. Today, he appears to be in better shape, and Lambert feels the crash site could begin to be a place of life as well as death.
12.5.2002: Lambert pledges to donate 6 acres to the Flight 93 memorial and starts negotiating with the Conservation Fund, a non-profit land-preservation group, for sale of another 160 acres. The fund offers $167,000.
6.21.2003: Lambert learns he has not been chosen to be a member of the federal commission to oversee the memorial's creation. He is crushed and hurt that his work on the Flight 93 Task Force and his good relations with the families did not outweigh the potential conflict of interest he faces as a landowner. He later resigns from the task force.
7.28.2006: Debby Borza, one of the Flight 93 family members to whom Lambert has become close, throws him a birthday party at the Pine Grill, near the crash site. His new girlfriend, Amy, is impressed at the bond that has developed between him and the families.
9.9.2006: WITF in Harrisburg airs Lambert's report about his visit to the Flight 93 site with Borza, Esther Heymann and Ben Wainio, all of whom lost daughters in the crash. "Through a twist of fate (because his family owns part of the land), I am one of the people who can visit here," Lambert says.
5.7.2009: The National Park Service says it will use eminent domain to acquire land for the Flight 93 memorial, including 6 acres Lambert had planned to donate. Lambert is shocked and disappointed.
6.12.2009: Lambert reaches a deal with the park service to sell 157 acres adjoining the crash site, and donates 6 acres that are part of the crash site itself.
8.8.2009: Lambert marries his girlfriend, Amy, with coroner Miller serving as an usher.
8.6.2010: Lambert signs papers donating 6 acres and selling 157 acres to the memorial. "It's time to move on," he thinks. "They don't need me for this anymore."
Carie Lemack: A mother lost, a cause found
An MIT graduate student loses her mother on American Airlines Flight 11 when hijackersslam it into the World Trade Center on 9/11. In the months and years that follow,she finds in her grief, loss and anger a source of meaning and motivation.
By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
VIDEO: Mother's death drove Carrie Lemack to pursue rights for families of victims of 9/11
9.12.2001: At the offices of Market Perspectives, a market research firm in Framingham, Mass., Carie Lemack, 26, tells employees that Judy Larocque, their founder and CEO and her mother, has been killed on American Airlines Flight 11 at the World Trade Center. Neighbors come by her mother's house to offer condolences to Carie, a grad student at MIT, and her sister, Danielle. "She's in a better place," some say. Carie is not a believer. "My mom is not OK with the fact that she got murdered," she thinks. "That's not a better place."
10.13.2001: Carie and Danielle attend an FBI meeting in Boston for families of those killed on 9/11. Upset about the airline bailout enacted the previous week that created the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund to shield airlines from lawsuits, the sisters circulate a contact information sheet to gather phone numbers and e-mail addresses of other victims' families.
10.26.2001: The first meeting of what becomes Families of September 11 is held at a Newton, Mass., hotel. Organized by Carie and Danielle, the group writes a four-part mission statement: improve aviation safety; advocate for a memorial; provide for families; and outreach. "If we don't start speaking out, they're going to make more decisions affecting us without our say," Carie Lemack tells the group.
10.27.2001: On what would have been her mother's 51st birthday, Carie attends the memorial service at Ground Zero for those killed in the attacks. The trip is covered by the Red Cross, but she has persuaded them to let her stay at a different hotel than the agency arranged. It would be too much, she says. "A hotel full of grieving families? I don't think so."
1.14.2002: Representing Families of September 11, Carie Lemack and other members hold a press conference in Boston to object to the proposed rules of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund. Draft regulations would deduct life insurance and pensions from the compensation. Carie says she and her sister would receive nothing from the fund for the death of their mother. "I lost my mom on a plane. She flew into a building on national television," Carie says. "And then our rights were taken away from us."
7.31.2002: After faxing the White House for 17 days in a row asking why the president opposes an independent commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks, Carie Lemack gets a letter from chief of staff Andrew Card reiterating the president's opposition. She calls the White House operator and says she won't hang up until she speaks with Card. Eventually, she gets to talk to Jay Lefkowitz, deputy director of domestic policy.
9.4.2002: Carie Lemack and other members of the Family Steering Committee, a group of 9/11 widows and relatives, meet with Card at the White House to urge support for the creation of a 9/11 investigative panel. "Everyone's asking us if the president is being supportive. What's our answer?" she asks. A congressional bill creating the 9/11 Commission is signed into law by President Bush on Nov. 27.
4.8.2004: Testifying before the 9/11 Commission, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says there were no credible warnings about the 9/11 attack. After her testimony, she hugs 9/11 family members in attendance. Carie Lemack isn't one of them. "Accountability, ma'am, accountability," she calls out to the secretary of State. "I want the full truth."
12.6.2004: In a last-minute push, 9/11 families, including Carie Lemack, hold a press conference with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to urge Congress to pass intelligence reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission. It's Carie's 14th trip to Washington to push legislators to pass the bill since September. That evening, she and other Family Steering Committee members hold a silent vigil outside the White House as members of Congress arrive for the annual White House Christmas party.
12.7.2004: Congress passes a bill for which Carie Lemack and other 9/11 family members have lobbied that would implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations for overhauling intelligence-gathering agencies. Ten days later, she watches Bush sign the bill.
9.1.2005: Carie Lemack flies to Washington to meet with Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley to protest the agency's decision to lift the ban on scissors and small tools aboard planes. On the plane, she gets the idea for 9/11 families to personally thank TSA screeners for their work.
3.6.2006: Carrying a framed photo of her mother, Carie Lemack goes to the opening day of the death penalty phase of the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of conspiring with the 9/11 hijackers. She watches with 300 family members in a federal courthouse in Boston via closed-circuit TV.
5.9.2006: Carie visits the Buffalo-Niagara airport to thank TSA screeners for their efforts to stop terrorists. "Your job is tough. People are constantly complaining about the screening process. You have to stand there and look at X-ray images all day, and your feet hurt," she says. "But you're making a big difference, and the 9/11 families see that difference and appreciate it."
4.5.2007: On her way to a meeting at the White House on the threat of nuclear terrorism, Carie gets a call from her sister, Danielle. A police officer has come to Danielle's house in Belmont, Mass., to tell her that the New York City medical examiner has identified some remains of their mother, six years after her death. As soon as they can, Carie and her sister go to New York and take the remains - a foot - home to Massachusetts. She doesn't want her mother in New York for a minute longer than necessary.
9.9.2008: At a United Nations symposium on supporting victims of terrorism, Carie Lemack meets Ashraf al-Khaled, a Jordanian whose father and 26 others were killed by a suicide bomber at his 2005 wedding in Amman.
7.13.2009: Carie gets a call from friends that her mom's golden retriever, Naboo, has died. Naboo has been living with friends since Carie moved to Washington, D.C., in 2006. She remembers Naboo greeting her at the door of her mother's house on 9/11 when she rushed there after learning her mother had been on one of the hijacked planes. "I kissed her nose, and it smelled like my mom. I knew it was the last time I would ever smell my mom."
11.9.2009: Carie Lemack launches Global Survivors Network with al-Khaled. She begins raising money to make a movie about terror victims such as al-Khaled.
8.3.2010: The documentary Killing in the Name, about the suicide bombing at al-Khaled's wedding, premieres. It is nominated for an Oscar for best short documentary.
2.27.2011: Four last-minute tickets mean Carie attends the Oscars with her sister and al-Khaled and his wife, Nadia. Prior to the announcement of the winner, Carie sneaks to the front of the auditorium with plans to rush the stage and call for a moment of silence for victims of terrorism around the world if Killing in the Name wins. But it does not.
The Burnhams: A complicated captivity
Martin and Gracia Burnham, American missionaries, are kidnapped in May 2001 in the southern Philippinesby the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf. They're moved through the jungle as the rebels try to get ransom. After 9/11, in light of Abu Sayyaf's alleged links to al-Qaeda, their plight attracts international attention. The only thing the Burnhams dread more than captivity is a "rescue" by Philippine troops; they're sure they'll be killed in the process.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
VIDEO: Gracia Burnham: Life and death in the hand of terrorists
9.11.2001: It's the 107th day of captivity for Martin and Gracia Burnham, American Christian missionaries who were kidnapped May 27, 2001, in the southern Philippines by the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf. They have been moved constantly through the jungle on the island of Basilan as their captors try to extract ransom. When they learn of the attacks on the United States, the Burnhams are afraid their release, which they've been confident would eventually occur, will be complicated. Gracia thinks, "Our goose is cooked."
9.19.2001: Martin Burnham's 42nd birthday. That night, alluding to the 9/11 attacks, one of their captors tells the Burnhams that "the Christian world has pushed us too far, and we're sick of it. When people are oppressed, you can't hold them back. It's just going to be this way until we are given what we want." And he says the movement won't stop with liberating the Philippines: "Islam is for the whole world."
10.15.2001: Martin is allowed to do a live radio interview via phone. He asks the Philippine army to stop its armed rescue attempts, which have placed their lives in danger: "I'm always tied up. I am always at the center of the group. ... They cannot rescue me with an artillery attempt, and they cannot rescue me with an airstrike. We will only be killed, and our children will only be orphans."
The Burnhams are sure that in a frontal assault they'd be killed - by their kidnappers or their rescuers. They believe only negotiations can save them.
11.19.2001: Philippine President Gloria Arroyo meets President Bush at the White House, assuring him that her military can rescue the Burnhams. The 9/11 attacks have made the U.S. more concerned with Muslim extremism in the Philippines and elsewhere, but the Philippine constitution explicitly forbids foreign troops from operating in the country.
11.22.2001: The Burnhams receive a box of supplies from supporters with prescription glasses for Martin and a copy of Newsweek with an article about their captivity. The Burnhams get angry when their captors take things such as Snickers and Cheez Whiz for themselves. But the couple share with other hostages, handing out spices, soup mixes, cookies, peanuts and deodorant. Only later do they realize it's the fourth Thursday in the month - Thanksgiving.
11.25.2001: Martin videotapes an interview with a Filipino journalist that is later shown on CBS News' 48 Hours: "I would say to my own government: Could you negotiate or talk to these people?" Gracia says: "We're always hungry. There's never enough food. This is no way to live. There's no way to take care of yourself. ...We've been forgotten. We need someone to show us some mercy. Is there no one in this whole country who can help us?" The interviewer tells Gracia that the 9/11 attacks hurt their chances for release, because "now the U.S. is mad at terrorists and won't pay anything."
12.13.2001: Gracia, who has begun to keep a journal, writes: "I feel like a dirty animal - muddy wet, stinky. Asked God for a nice place to take a bath." That morning she tells Martin: "It's Wednesday night in the States - midweek service time in at least some churches. People are praying for us right now."
12.19.2001: The Burnhams' supporters present a petition at the White House with 20,000 signatures calling for their release. Their three children, who lived with them in the Philippines, have moved to be with Martin's family in Kansas.
12.25.2001: Martin and Gracia celebrate Christmas with a breakfast of plain rice and play checkers with twigs, foil and a piece of paper. Gracia recites, from memory, a Bible verse: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Back in Martin's hometown in Kansas, their presents sit in a corner, unopened.
1.2.2002: The Philippine government accepts a U.S. offer of training and logistical support in its battle with the Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to al-Qaeda. The Burnhams aren't sure how to react. Will it increase their value to their captors, or make a ransom payment less likely? Does it mean a rescue operation is more likely? And is that good or bad?
5.20.2002: The Burnhams persuade their captors to let them listen to a shortwave radio. They find a Christian station in Alaska and hear their first spoken Scripture in almost a year, from Romans 8: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The preacher continues: "If you are in the midst of a hard situation, and if you could hear Christ in the next room praying, you wouldn't be afraid of a thousand enemies. He would be calling your name." The minister prays for the oppressed and the persecuted, including Christians treated wrongly because of their faith. Martin and Gracia look at each other, tears in their eyes. It's like he's praying for them.
5.27.2002: The anniversary of the Burnhams' captivity. Several shiploads of Philippine government troops have landed nearby, promising a "rescue" attempt the Burnhams are afraid will be their undoing. Gracia thinks that the noose is tightening around them.
6.7.2002: The Burnhams' 376th day of captivity. They're resting in their hammock on a rainy afternoon when a battle erupts between their captors and Philippine soldiers. Gracia is shot in the leg and Martin is killed by a bullet through the chest. Gracia thinks that, as she'd feared, the troops came in with all barrels blazing, despite the hostages. Most of the rebels escape. Gracia is airlifted to a hospital.
6.8.2002: Gracia, resting in a hospital in Manila, meets President Arroyo. In captivity, Gracia often planned to tell the president that her military was corrupt and incompetent. But now she doesn't even tell Arroyo that her troops killed her husband, Martin. She figures the army feels bad about what happened, and she doesn't need to make anyone feel worse.
6.10.2002: Gracia arrives at the Kansas City, Mo., airport and is reunited with her three children, Jeff, Mindy and Zack. She tells reporters she blames their captors for Martin's death: "We were repeatedly lied to by the Abu Sayyaf, and they are not men of honor. They should be treated as common criminals. We support all U.S. government efforts in assisting the Philippines in ridding that country of terrorism." In New York, Secretary of State Colin Powell says the "murderous example of Abu Sayyaf" proves the U.S. was right to take the war against terrorism beyond Afghanistan.
6.21.2002: One of the Muslim rebel leaders who held the Burnhams is killed in a gunbattle with Philippine marines. Abu Sabaya, chief spokesman for Abu Sayyaf, is in a boat with six other rebels that's intercepted off the coast of the southern Philippines. The marines are guided by intelligence from U.S. spy planes, and by a transponder provided by U.S. intelligence officers that an informer hid in Sabaya's backpack.
9.27.2002: A Muslim rebel accused of kidnapping the Burnhams says the Philippine government sacrificed the couple for the war on terrorism. In a taped message played on a radio station on the southern island of Mindanao, Khadafi Janjalani says government officials were willing "to sacrifice them to advance their political and economic interests" and to "justify their so-called war on terrorism. ... Perhaps a negotiated settlement would have resulted in an earlier resolution."
7.30.2002: Gracia has a problem: People are sending money to her new home in Kansas that she doesn't know what to do with. So she'll start the Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation, with "ministries to Muslims" as a focus. Gracia writes that in captivity she "saw firsthand the plight of the Muslim community." The foundation will support "organizations seeking new and creative ways to reach the Muslim community for Christ."
5.1.2003: Gracia's memoirs of captivity, In the Presence of My Enemies, is published. She dedicates it to all who prayed for her and Martin: "It is because of you that I came out alive and am able to tell the story." She writes that a Filipino general, whom she does not identify, tried to get half of a possible ransom for the hostages, and that soldiers delivered food and sold weapons to the rebels.
7.27.2004: Gracia returns to the Philippines to testify against her alleged abductors. On the southern island of Mindanao, an Abu Sayyaf leader who remains at large is interviewed by a radio station. Addressing Burnham, Abu Solaiman says, "Welcome back. Nothing personal about what happened to her. ... Gracia, you only lost Martin, but for us, we lost our homeland." A U.S.-backed Philippines Army offensive has dislodged the rebels from Basilan island, where the Burnhams spent much of their captivity. Philippine officials say the group is down from 1,000 fighters four years ago to about 300.
1.17.2007: Before dawn on her 48th birthday, Gracia is awakened by a phone call from the Associated Press in Manila. Another of her captors, Abu Solaiman, was shot to death the previous day in a battle with the Philippine military. To Gracia, it's another bit of closure.
9.21.2008: Gracia, whose foundation helps several of her imprisoned former captors, gets a letter from a maximum security prison in Manila. The writer asks whether she recalls "the experiences we had" and reminds her of how he cooked eel for the hostages. He says he's innocent, because he was forced to join the rebels when they came through his village. He signs the letter "Your friend, Bashir."
Abigail Carter: A widow's journey
The mother of two loses her husband on 9/11, unleashing a torrent of emotions - sadness, anger, fear, hope - as she tries to build a new life for her and her children, to find her voice as a writer and to settle in what feels like home.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
9.11.2001: Abigail Carter becomes a widow and single parent at 35 when her husband, Arron Dack, is killed while visiting the World Trade Center on business. Alone at home in Montclair, N.J., with their young children, Olivia and Carter, she feels lost.
9.20.2001: Abby Carter lies in bed at 4 a.m. She wishes Arron into bed with her. She imagines running her hands down his body, remembering every freckle, bump and curve. She imagines what he must have endured on 9/11 - fear, anger, remorse, all over the course of a few minutes, like a passenger in a crashing plane. She imagines his regrets: that they hadn't taken the weekend free from the kids she'd nagged him about; that he hadn't spent more time with the kids; that she and he hadn't made love more often.
9.24.2001: It's the first day of school since 9/11 for 6-year-old Olivia. She doesn't want to go, she tells her mother, because everyone will look at her. Abby knows what she means; she, too, has sequestered herself indoors, afraid she might suddenly burst into tears, or just that something terrible might happen again.
10.30.2001: Abby spends her first night in the queen-size bed she bought to replace the king-size one that she shared with Arron and had grown to feel so empty. Once, she'd wanted such a bed to bring them closer; in the queen, somehow, she now feels closer to him.
1.19.2002: Abby attends a meeting for 9/11 families. In a discussion with other widows, she admits that she seems constantly angry with her kids. Around the room, heads nod. Later, the mothers join their children, who have been writing letters and attaching them to helium balloons. Olivia's reads: "Dear Daddy, I miss you. I hope you like heaven." The kids go outside and release the balloons into the sky.
2.14.2002: Abby manages to forget it's Valentine's Day until she and her two kids go to breakfast at a resort hotel and find red paper hearts taped to the door. She squeezes her eyes shut, wishing the day would disappear. Inside, each table has a single red rose. She reflects that, as with everything in her life, her expectations of Valentine's Day will have to be redefined.
12.13.2002: Abby goes on her first date since 9/11. She knows when he walks into the coffee shop that this isn't the guy for her. She also worries what would happen if a friend walked in and wonders what she's doing with this bald man. She blushes, feeling as if she's cheating on Arron. She laughs nervously at her date's strange jokes, which have a desperate quality - not like Arron's silly, lighthearted humor.
5.31.2003: A second blind date. Brian is a divorced man with two kids. Abby met him online. At a restaurant, they laugh, talk, drink wine and eat great French food. Abby feels they have chemistry.
At the end of the evening, they stand awkwardly by her car, not knowing whether they should kiss goodnight. After four dates, she later writes, she "surrenders completely ... after a prelude of slow-dancing to Stevie Wonder in my living room."
9.24.2003: Abby begins writing memoirs of her experiences since 9/11. She types "September 11, 2001" on top of the screen of her Mac and makes it bold. She feels she needs to unlock her stories, stories that someday she needs her kids to read.
12.30.2003: Abby meets Michael, a divorced divinity school student, while visiting friends in Seattle. She has been feeling estranged from Brian. At the end of the evening, Michael pulls her into a doorway, and they kiss briefly.
1.7.2004: Abby and Brian celebrate his birthday. A week later, increasingly estranged, she breaks up with him. She has realized she doesn't love him and doesn't want to have "a Brady Bunch family" with him. But she fears she'll never love again, that Arron's memory will always come in the way.
2.13.2004: Abby receives a visit in New Jersey from Michael. When she falls at a skating rink, Michael makes her cups of tea, picks up takeout for dinner and entertains her the next day while she waits at the hospital emergency room.
She thinks maybe she could fall in love again.
3.25.2004: Abby leaves the kids with her mother-in-law in New Jersey and flies to Seattle to visit Michael. They spend hours in bed, getting up only to make tea and eggs. They look deep into each other's eyes as they talk about spirituality. They ignore the future, enjoy the present. They plan to reunite in Mexico in a month. She will bring her kids.
3.29.2004: Abby begins to think about leaving Montclair. The house and its memories weigh on her; and ever since the terrorist attacks, she has felt afraid living near New York.
6.2.2004: Abby hosts Olivia's 9th birthday party. Abby's boyfriend, Michael, has Olivia and friends in stitches, teaching them improvisational comedy tricks.
"Michael might be my new dad," Olivia tells one of her guests. But Abby suspects that Michael's heart isn't in their relationship, and she can't imagine the four of them as a family.
8.6.2004: While visiting Seattle, Abby receives her checks from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001. She finds these pieces of paper, meant to replace her husband, disappointingly insubstantial. "Are we rich now?" Olivia asks. "Yes, a little," her mother answers. "But no. It has to last us for the rest of our lives. ... Although it might mean that I don't have to go back to work again right away." Olivia's response: "Goody!"
10.08.2004: Abby dedicates a backyard memorial to Arron. It's a birdbath with mosaic tiles depicting symbolic creatures: a butterfly for Arron; a bird for Abby, whom he nicknamed "Bird"; a horse for Olivia, whom as a baby he dubbed "Pickle Horse"; and a cow for Carter, who drank so much milk as a baby. That night, for a neighborhood gathering, Abby fills the birdbath bowl with champagne and hands guests silly straws. It's the third anniversary of Arron's memorial service.
12.04.2004: Looking at homes in Seattle and considering a move there, Abby finds a creamy-yellow Italian-villa-style house perched on a grassy slope with gardens and views of Lake Washington. "This is it," she tells a friend. By 5 p.m., she and the seller have agreed on a price. This, she hopes, is where she can write her memoirs.
7.9.2005: Abby and her children board a flight to Seattle. She feels as if she's in limbo, between two worlds.
10.15.2006: Abby signs a deal to write a book about her 9/11 widowhood. She has nine months to produce a manuscript.
3.29.2008: Abby's memoirs, The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation, is published. In a review, the Toronto Globe and Mail calls it "eloquent and honest. ... Reading it is like sitting at your own kitchen table listening to Abigail Carter's story, a story that is unnerving, uplifting and occasionally humorous."
But, like most 9/11 memoirs, the book does not sell well.
4.13.2009: A blog post by Abby: "Lately when I have dreams about Arron, I am angry at him because he has just told me that he is leaving me, and wants a divorce. I can't help but be struck by the thought that my mind is helping me divorce my ghost husband. Deep down, it feels like something I need to do to get to whatever might be next. ... It feels like good pain, that last scratch that removes the scab revealing the tender pink skin underneath."
1.31.2011: Another blog post: "I have been attempting to write about Arron for the new book I hope to write. Oddly, I am finding this infinitely difficult. ... Over 9+ years, I have slowly disengaged myself from Arron in such a way that he has become more of an idea than an actual person. ... It makes me feel like perhaps I am not hanging on quite as tightly as I worry I do, that I am freer of him than I thought. I feel happy when I think of him, smile at memories, but rarely do I break down in snot-producing sobs anymore. I feel proud about that."
Welles Crowther: Man with the red bandanna
The family of a man lost in the 9/11 terror attacks wonders how he died, and what he was doing at the end.A red bandanna, which gives rise to a legend, helps answer those questions.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
VIDEO: Equities trader turned firefighter saved many
9.11.2001: Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader, is working on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center when the first hijacked airliner hits the building's twin. He leaves a reassuring phone message for his mother at home in Nyack, N.Y. After that, nothing. His parents are left to wonder: How did he die? What was he doing at the end?
11.1.2001:Ladies' Home Journal publishes a first-person account by Judy Wein, an AON Corp. vice president who was injured and narrowly escaped from the south tower on Sept. 11. She writes: "A man with a red handkerchief over his face seemed to appear out of nowhere and pointed to the stairs. 'Anyone who can get up and walk, get up now,' he urged the other people on the floor." But she cannot identify the man. Crowther was a volunteer fireman who always carried a red-print bandanna in his back pocket. But his family and friends, who'd have made the connection, don't see the article.
3.19.2002: Crowther's remains are found near firefighters and emergency workers killed at a command center in the lobby of the south tower. Notified three days later, his family will note the significance of the date he was found: 19 was his lucky number - the one he wore playing varsity hockey at Nyack High School and lacrosse at Boston College.
5.25.2002: A New York Times article about the upper floors of the Trade Center on Sept. 11 says a "mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief" to help rescue several women from a dark, smoky stairway. One, Ling Young, says that she was steered toward safety by the man; that he called, "This way to the stairs!"; that he followed her down the stairs, carrying a woman on his back; that when they reached clearer air, he put the woman down and went back up the smoky stairs. But no one can identify the man.
5.26.2002: "Oh my God, Welles, there you are!" Alison Crowther reads the Times story and realizes the unidentified hero was her son, who since elementary school had carried a bandanna - a habit he picked up from his father, Jefferson. She overnights Ling Young, who's mentioned in the story, a photo of her son. Young confirms that the man, who'd taken off the bandanna to speak to her, was Crowther. "You don't forget a face like that," she tells Alison. Two weeks later, the TheJournal News of Rockland County, N.Y., identifies the man in the red bandanna as Crowther. It quotes Young as saying that although he saved others, "he didn't save himself."
6.23.2002: Alison and Jefferson Crowther have lunch at home with two women Welles helped, Judy Wein and Ling Young. Young is still in a wheelchair, recovering from burns. They drink water from Lourdes, the pilgrimage site in France, which Alison says helped her deal with despair over the loss of her son.
6.8.2003: Crowther's parents remove a red bandanna to unveil a bronze plaque dedicated to their son at Empire Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 in Nyack. Crowther joined his father as a volunteer at the fire company when he was 16. Ling Young attends the ceremony. "This brings back memories," she says. "I'm glad I found him and know who he is."
12.15.2006: Crowther becomes the first person to be posthumously made an honorary member of the New York Fire Department. "Under the most hellish of situations, he ... saved all those lives," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta says.
10.20.2007: The annual Red Bandanna Run, a 5K run around the campus of Boston College and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, raises funds for the Welles Crowther Memorial Trust. Crowther graduated from BC in 1999. There's also an annual Red Bandanna Skate in his hometown. "When children and adults hear Welles' story, it changes them," says his mother, Alison. "It brings such a light into their soul - it's a beautiful thing for us."
8.8.2010: The Welles Crowther Memorial Trust gives $1,000 to send Joshua Colas, a seventh-grader from White Plains, N.Y., to the World Youth Chess Championships in Greece. On Dec. 15, Joshua will take the national seventh-grade title in Orlando. Two days later, he will become the youngest African-American chess grandmaster by defeating Leonardo Martinez at the Marshall Chess Club in New York.
9.12.2010: Musicians from some of New York's greatest orchestras take the stage at Grace Episcopal Church in Nyack with red bandannas tied around their arms or tucked under their instruments and perform a concert in memory of Crowther. The concert, in its ninth year, aims to help heal painful memories with Bach, Debussy and Schumann ... "music with a message of hope," Alison says.
2.25.2011: Alison and Jefferson Crowther visit a new exhibit in their son's honor at the preview site for the 9/11 memorial museum in New York. The exhibit features photos of Crowther, a recorded interview with his parents ... and one of his signature red-print bandannas.
Christian Engeldrum: A father's legacy
A New York City firefighter responds to the call on 9/11, then to the call to military service in Iraq.His death there leaves his wife, sons and yet-to-be-born daughter with a legacy of heroism and absence.
By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
9.11.2001: New York City firefighter Christian P. Engeldrum is at the city's Fire Academy training to be a chauffeur, or driver, when the World Trade Center attacks occur. A member of Ladder 61, the 36-year-old Engeldrum is an Army veteran of Desert Storm and served as a New York City police officer before joining the firefighters. Amid the rubble pile at Ground Zero, he steadies a ladder while another firefighter climbs to hang an American flag from a bent light pole, captured in a New York Daily News photograph. With his ladder company, he spends days searching the wreckage for remains.
2002: Engeldrum sends an American flag to old buddies in the 101st Airborne, in Afghanistan. They send it back, signed, and with a message: "Those who don't do battle for their country, don't know with what ease they accept their citizenship in America." Engeldrum and the Ladder 61 crew hang it in their firehouse in the Bronx.
Early 2004: When he learns that the National Guard is going to be called up to serve in Iraq, Engeldrum re-enlists. He joins the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, the "Fighting 69th," based in Manhattan. Only afterward does he tell his wife, Sharon. "It scared the crap out of me. I knew he was going to be sent (into combat) at some point," she says. "But he felt he needed to help his men out. It was like a brotherhood thing, and he had to go. He felt a responsibility."
3.17.2004:Cardinal Edward Egan announces the plans for deployment of the 69th to Iraq during the Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral before the start of the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
5.15.2004: Engeldrum leaves with his National Guard unit, the 69th Infantry, for training in California.
9.21.2004: Engeldrum is in New York for a two-week leave before deploying to Iraq. He visits his firefighting buddies at Ladder 61. He leaves without looking back. "I can't say goodbye to you guys," he says.
10.5.2004: Engeldrum arrives in Kuwait with the 69th Infantry. It is his second combat tour in the Middle East.
10.29.2004: The men of Ladder Company 61 in the Bronx, N.Y., get a letter from one of their own. Engeldrum thanks them for "Project Engeldrum," the new roof and repairs they made to his family home to help his wife, Sharon, while he's away. He shares the good news Sharon is expecting a baby, conceived during his last leave. "Oops! I hope it's a girl. But as long as it's healthy, I'm happy." He says how much he loves their fire company, located in Co-op City, a huge Bronx apartment complex . "The first day I stepped foot in the firehouse I felt like part of a family." And he lets them know he is on his way into Iraq. "They expect us to get hit pretty hard on the way," he writes. "If you don't hear from me again it means we got hit harder than I would have liked ... I have to go now and cut some more steel to armor up our vehicles."
11.2.2004: Engeldrum's National Guard unit is sent to Baghdad and then to Taji, northwest of the city.
11.24.2004: The night before Thanksgiving, Engeldrum calls home from Iraq to his family in the Bronx. He says he is tired, but going out on a mission and wants to know if everything is well at home. Thanksgiving is special to Chris and Sharon: They met as teenagers on Thanksgiving Day 1983, at the gas station where Engeldrum worked for his uncle. Within a month they were an item; four years later, they were married.
11.29.2004: On patrol in Taji, Engeldrum is killed when his Humvee is hit by a roadside bomb. It is his son Royce's 16th birthday.
12.4.2004:President George W. Bush calls Sharon Engeldrum at home in the Bronx to offer condolences.
12.9.2004: Thousands of firefighters and mourners turn out for Engeldrum's funeral Mass at St. Benedict's Church in the Bronx. The next day, Engeldrum is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
2.3.2005: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton invites Sharon to be her guest at President Bush's State of the Union Address.
6.6.2005: Sharon gives birth to her third child, a girl, six months after the combat death of her husband. She names the baby girl Kristian. "I'm sad that her father can't see her, but I know he's looking down on her," she tells the New York Post.
8.22.2006: Sharon accompanies New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the dedication of a memorial to the "Fighting 69th" National Guard unit in Ballymote, Ireland.
9.8.2010: Kristian Engeldrum, born six months after her father's death in Iraq, starts kindergarten. "She knows that he's not here, that he's not with us, he's up in heaven," Sharon says. "I'm not sure if she grasps the actual realization."
11.19.2010: On what would be her husband's 45th birthday, Sharon and members of Ladder 61 make their annual trip to Arlington National Cemetery to visit Chris Engeldrum's grave.
4.14.2011: New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano presents the FDNY Foundation Service Recognition award to firefighters who have also served in the armed forces "in recognition of their commitment, courage and dedication to the citizens of New York City and to the nation through their tour of military service." Sharon accepts the award on behalf of all 304 firefighters who also had military service.
Kristin Facer: A war's signature wound
She joined the Army after 9/11 and suffered a debilitating brain injury in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Now, Kristin Facer struggles to rebuild her life, to recover her mental acuity and to answer a question: Who am I now?
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
9.11.2001: Kristin Facer, a 27-year-old administrator at El Camino College in Southern California, is horrified by the attacks on her nation, which seem far away yet terribly immediate.
11.15.2002: Facer begins Army basic training. After reading My American Journey by Colin Powell, she realized she wanted to make a difference. She's not from a military family, but she has heard too many people criticize what the government did or didn't do leading up to 9/11. The way she sees it, once you recognize a problem, you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. And so she enlisted.
10.3.2003: Facer completes Officer School at Fort Benning, Ga., and is commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Transportation Corps. It's one of the proudest moments of her life; at 29, she believes she has finally found what she wants to do.
12.28.2004: Facer leaves for Iraq as a platoon leader with the 360th Transportation Company out of Fort Carson, Colo. The company will deliver everything from food and water to ammunition and fuel over Iraq's perilous roads.
9.1.2005: Facer, who has led more than 9,000 miles of convoys in Iraq, is injured when a bomb explodes near her vehicle outside Samarra. Thanks in part to her body armor, she appears to have survived the blast with little more than some hearing loss and a sore back.
10.24.2005: Facer is flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. Although she returns to duty after the bombing, she has been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. Her memory is failing. Once, she forgot to take key documents with her on a convoy. Her platoon sergeant says she sometimes stops speaking in midsentence for no reason. Next, she'll be flown to Fort Carson for treatment by an Air Force Academy neurologist.
1.1.2006: Facer has come to realize that the initial optimism about the extent of her injuries was premature. Under the care of a neurologist, she learns about traumatic brain injury, which is fast becoming the signature injury of the war. It has left her feeling like a shell of who she was.
7.5.2006: Facer begins five weeks at the Veterans Administration Brain Injury Center in Palo Alto, Calif. Because of short-term memory loss, she's constantly rediscovering the effects of her injury. Each day that realization traumatizes her all over again.
1.21.2007: Facer is promoted to captain. To cope with depression while being treated for her injuries, she has tried to stay positive. Each day she focuses on at least one thing she can do well, like finding the correct size plastic container for leftovers - one of many skills she has had to relearn. Once she had excelled in things like math and softball; now she tries to find encouragement in the smallest achievements.
11.19.2007: A brain scan confirms the severity of Facer's injury. It explains why she often has a hard time finding the right word and has trouble processing new information. She uses two handheld computers, one for appointments she can't remember, the other for mental exercises. She is told her I.Q. has dropped from 133 to 110.
12.25.2007: Facer spends Christmas at her mother's home in Southern California. The family likes to play games such as Trivial Pursuit and Cranium, but Facer, once so sharp, doesn't get any of the answers right. They all laugh; it's that, or cry.
11.15.2008: Facer takes medical retirement from the Army. She feels she can no longer trust her damaged brain, let alone be trusted with the lives of others. She has staked much of her identity on being a soldier; after the bombing, it becomes an even larger part of who she was. Now, she realizes, she has lost even that part of herself.
7.31.2010: Facer is married in Grand Ledge, Mich., to a soldier she met at Fort Carson. Despite her trials, she has found love. Later, the couple settle in Carmel, Ind.
4.17.2011: In a note to USA TODAY, Facer asks, "Who is Kristin Facer? ... I am still searching for an identity. I am still trying to figure out what my 'new' brain and my injured body can and can't do. I am trying to find a way to mourn the loss of who I was before my life was changed one day on a road in Iraq." She continues: "I am proud of my service to my country. I am proud to have played a tiny part in helping Iraq toward democracy, in allowing the Iraqi people an opportunity to vote, in allowing the women to vote. In spite of the challenges and losses that I have and will continue to face, I would do it all over again."