A study by New York’s three 9/11 health programs reported that “at least 10,000 firefighters, police officers and civilians exposed to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center have been found to have post-traumatic stress disorder, and in a kind of mass grieving, many of them have yet to recover.”
In their reported findings, an alarming “95.6 percent of survivors reported at least one current post traumatic stress symptom. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs defines PTSD as “a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster.”
Experts suggest that in addition to the trauma experienced by those directly involved by the attacks in New York, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, millions of Americans may have been psychologically affected as well. Most Americans can recall with detailed precision what they were doing when they heard of the brazen attack against innocent civilians on our soil.
Although debris has been removed, and a memorial, museum and new skyscraper have been erected at the site of the Twin Towers, many still live with recurring nightmares, feelings of anxiety and hopelessness and survivor guilt as a result of their experiences and memories from the World Trade Center attacks.
National Guard shifts to an operational force
The 9/11 attacks also caused a culture shift in our military structure as military readiness was shifted to rely on the skills and expertise of citizen soldiers in ways that never before could be imagined.
“Weekend warriors” became a thing of the past.
Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, National Guard and Reserve members’ military duty requirements as part-time citizen soldiers during peacetime were not very demanding or distracting.
Then “all hell broke loose” as the National Guard shifted to an operational force. From that day on, our nation could not be the fighting force that it is without the role of the Guard and Reserve, who represent almost 40 percent of our total defense.
One of the most noteworthy changes in the National Guard has been its shift from a cold war era strategic reserve, to its current role as an operational reserve. Since that fateful day, many of our National Guard and Reserve members have seen multiple deployments overseas.
Often, there is a personal price to pay.
As first responders sprang into action, the Department of Defense deployed social workers, mental health professionals and chaplains to provide counseling for civilians and military affected by the attacks and loved ones of the victims.
New Jersey Army National Guardsmen Spc. Edward Afanador of Mays Landing and Chaplain 1st Lt. James Zozzaro of Wildwood were among those mobilized, as a unit of two, from their Army National Guard infantry unit, 1st Battalion, 114th Infantry headquartered in Woodbury, Gloucester County. Chaplain 1st Lt. Zozzaro hand selected Afanador to be his chaplain assistant because he was “a good shot and in good shape.”
The pair had no idea that they would be bonded forever as they struggled to make sense of the haunting images of their Ground Zero deployment.
The soldiers were activated on Sept. 11, 2001 and would, within days, “hit the ground running,” driving their own vehicle to the Jersey City National Guard armory in Jersey City.
Shortly after their Sept. 17, 2001 arrival at Ground Zero, Chaplain 1st Lt. James Zozzaro learned a disabled civilian parks worker had been left behind in the Amex building adjacent to Ground Zero after a bomb was reported to be in the building.
The pair ran against a sea of firemen, police and civilian workers who were evacuating the building and surrounding areas as a result of a bomb scare. Disregarding their own safety, they entered the area twice to successfully extract the disabled worker. Both would be decorated for their service at Ground Zero and Staten Island.
The chaplain unit was quickly detailed with creating a temporary chapel to minister to workers at the Fresh Kills Landfill (later renamed Task Force Respect), Staten Island and at Homeport, Staten Island.
Chaplain 1st Lt. Zozzaro credited his assistant’s charm for securing donations of food and supplies from the local Walmart, the Salvation Army and generous Staten Island citizens who stocked their emerging sanctuary.
Like many soldiers and first responders, sleep eluded Afanador. He worked for 80 of the next 90 hours. When he wasn’t acting as his chaplain’s bodyguard/wingman, Afanador would volunteer for other duties such as delivering letters from a Cape May County Catholic school to the firemen and soldiers at Ground Zero.
He joined the dog rescue teams “carrying the bucket” for those tasked with recovering human remains from the carnage. Afanador saw many things that still keep him up at night and remind him that we can “never forget” the sacrifices that were made on that day and those that would follow.
Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Robert Stickgold has studied the effects of sleep deprivation on soldiers experiencing post traumatic stress disorder. In retrospect, Afanador’s initial exposure to a traumatic event set the groundwork for physical and psychological symptoms that he would be battling more than a decade later.
In his findings, Stickgold explains, “When someone experiences a trauma, their body changes biologically. This often results in a state of hyper-arousal or watchfulness which makes it difficult for them to fall asleep.”
A person’s inability to sleep and sustained exposure to human suffering inhibits the body’s ability to process effectively what they experienced.
“With proper sleep, the memory will recede and integrate into a person’s past – without it, it might not,” Stickgold said.
Trauma triggers and physical injuries
The calculation of physical damage and trauma to America’s psyche continues.
New York City Police Department Officer James Zadroga was the first NYPD officer whose death was directly attributed to exposure from the rescue and recovery operations in the rubble of Ground Zero.
Like many others who developed severe respiratory illnesses, they were breathing air contaminated with toxins that seared their lungs.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act allocated $4.2 billion to create the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides testing and treatment for people who worked in response and recovery operations as well as for other survivors of the 9/11 attacks
For former Army Guardsman Ed Afanador, his life was forever changed when his respirator failed on Sept. 26, 2001 at the Ground Zero site. Even after being injured, Afanador returned to duty at Ground Zero and Staten Island to fulfill his mission, to his “state, country and God.” Still his ervice there left him permanently disabled.
On this anniversary of the attacks on our nation, remember the innocent victims, the bravery and resolve of the first responders and recovery workers, the tireless volunteers as well as the men and women of our nation’s military that continue to fight the global war on terrorism.
And take a moment to say a prayer for peace.
Donna Clementoni is director, employer outreach, New Jersey Committee Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
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