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08/23/11 — One last photo before the towers fell

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One last photo before the towers fell

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 23, 2011 1:46 PM

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News-Argus/TY JOHNSON

A bird's-eye view of the march by members of the Seymour Johnson AFB Security Forces Squadron from Greensboro to Virginia -- and Steve Pettit, who joined the trek Monday in honor of his fallen cousin, Gary Box.

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News-Argus/KENNETH FINE

Airman 1st Class Matthew Pettit and his father, Steve, march together in honor of New York firefighter Gary Box, who died when he responded to the collapsing World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Box was Matthew's godfather and Steve's second cousin.

The Twin Towers were already burning.

The tunnels and bridges leading into New York were closed.

But Gary Box was on a mission.

So the firefighter started walking.

*

Steve Pettit gets out of his car and lets his wife take the wheel.

He has just been asked to join his son, Matthew, and other members of the 4th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron, for a few miles of their journey through the North Carolina countryside.

"For me, this is a real privilege," Steve said.

So for nearly an hour, the father, sporting a T-shirt that read, "FDNY," matched his uniform-clad son step for step.

For them, the Ruck March to Remember is about far more than the sacrifices that have been made since 9/11.

It's their chance to honor a man known for his selflessness -- a hero they say always put others before himself.

*

Steve opens the trunk of the family car and points to a photograph of a firefighter hanging onto the back of a truck.

"This is the last picture ever taken of him," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "That's Gary."

What came next brought out more emotion -- the search for his cousin's name on a graphic immortalizing all New York firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center.

"Right there," Steve said, his finger running across the name of his son's fallen godfather. "There he is."

*

As a group of Goldsboro-based airmen continue to make their way toward ground zero, one of the faces in the crowd has motivation that stretches far beyond the members of the military who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He's one of the main reasons I wanted to do this," Matthew said, before joining his comrades for a group picture just before the second day of their march came to an end.

His father nodded.

"When I heard they were doing this, I told Matt that he had to do it," Steve said. "He had to do it for the family -- for Gary."

Even if their fallen hero has been smiling down since the day his godson raised his hand and swore to defend the nation he loved so dearly.

"We're all proud of Gary ... but the way in which they all lost their lives, it's the worst. So after Osama bin Laden was dealt his deal, my brother, who was close to Gary, too, sent me a note," Steve said, again choking up. "He said, 'Let Matt know that Gary's, you know, proud of him.'"