Milwaukee VA Medical Center
"Surreal and shocking": Milwaukee VA recalls 9/11
“I could not believe what I was seeing. It was so surreal and shocking.”
“You could feel the sadness engulfing the air all around you.”
“My heart still breaks when I think about that day.”
The quotes above represent some of the thoughts and remembrances shared by Milwaukee VA staffers when thinking about one of the most fateful dates in American history: Sept. 11, 2001.
The images are seared into our brains – hijacked commercial airliners, filled with innocent people, being flown into the World Trade Center towers by terrorists, followed by the towers’ collapse. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane was forced down in a central Pennsylvania field.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed, including first responders who rushed into the towers in a desperate evacuation attempt.
It’s been 20 years since then, but the memories remain vivid for nearly everyone alive at the time.
“I was sitting with my 6-month-old daughter watching ‘Sesame Street’ … (when) there was an interruption in the broadcast to announce the first plane,” remembered Michaele Kulick, a native New Yorker.
At the time, Kulick had numerous family members working as first responders in New York City, and her parents tried, in vain, to contact many of them.
“It was days until they were able to reach anyone. Phone lines and transportation (were) down,” she said.
Cathleen Batzner was driving to Madison that morning when her mother called with the news.
“I remember my disbelief and abject confusion as she cried and told me what she was seeing live on TV,” she said.
“I sobbed when I did see it. I still have a hard time watching it now, nearly 20 years later, without tearing up.” Cathleen Batzner
While others clustered around televisions, watching the endless coverage, Batzner said she purposely stayed away from all of it until she got home that evening.
“I am glad I waited as I sobbed when I did see it,” she said. “I still have a hard time watching it now, nearly 20 years later, without tearing up.”
Timothy Kolb remembers tears that day as well – the tears of a chaplain, sitting in a pew in the chapel at the Milwaukee VA.
“I went over to try and console him,” he said. “The chaplain stated that his daughter worked in one of the towers, but that morning she stopped to help a homeless person, so the daughter was not in the tower when it was hit.
“The tears from the chaplain were tears of joy because his daughter was still alive because she performed an act of kindness to another human being.”
With the military
Some VA employees had military duties at the time, and the event sent shockwaves and unprecedented action through their bases.
Dominic Vitaliano was a chaplain with the Air Force in Fort Dix, N.J., preparing to deploy to the Middle East, when the planes hit.
He remembers being sent to inform airmen who were unaware of the attacks.
“Two had to be taken off the lines as they had relatives on planes still in the sky,” he said.
“I remember when we returned to the class building, the whole building was surrounded by barbed wire, and there were Humvees with 50-caliber guns on top, guarding each side.”
“It was like listening to 'The War of the Worlds.'” Anonymous
Another VA employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, was stationed in Georgia at the time and remembers hearing the news over the radio.
“It was like listening to ‘The War of the Worlds,’ and everything in D.C. was getting attacked,” she said. “My future husband was actually in Baltimore for VA training, and he has described it as chaotic and strange -- things shutting down and people clustering together to try to find out more information.
“The loss of life and change to our sense of safety, and the propulsion into war, was horrible.”
Susan Kroll was serving with the Reserves at Fort Sheridan, Ill.
“It was a very tough day for all the soldiers working that day,” she said. “The camaraderie that day between all of us soldiers was like no other day ever.”
She was on guard duty that night. “It was a full moon and eerily quiet with all the airplanes grounded,” she said.
‘Life was changing forever’
Another VA worker wishing to remain anonymous was an eighth-grader at the time, going to school in central Pennsylvania – about 80 miles from where a hijacked plane crashed after passengers stormed the terrorists.
“Even though I was so young at the time, I knew life was changing forever in that moment.” Anonymous
She remembers her teacher turning on the television, but then turning it off after the second plane hit.
“The teacher decided that we all needed a break from the news (I'm forever grateful to him for recognizing that) and he took us outside for some fresh air and sunshine,” she said.
However, it wasn’t long until the students had to go back inside due to lockdown orders.
“Even though I was so young at the time, I knew life was changing forever in that moment.'"Anonymous
“It took us awhile to realize it was because of the plane crashing in Shanksville,” she said. “Even though I was so young at the time, I knew life was changing forever in that moment.”
And speaking of being young, registered nurse Lynn Stuker remembers working that day helping to deliver babies at Fort Hood.
“That day was one of our busiest days for deliveries,” she said. “It made me think that even in the midst of a tragedy, we are still blessed with miracles.”
Note: Milwaukee VA psychiatrist Dr. Michael McBride shared a personal essay, “What It Means to be a Veteran,” in relation to the anniversary. You can read it here.