A tribute's last steps
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 12, 2011 1:46 PM
Members of the 4th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron, alongside comrades from bases across the country, salute a wreath during a ceremony in Battery Park.
Moments after a ceremony to honor the sacrifices that have been made by the U.S. Air Force since 9/11, New Yorkers and tourists sought some face time with what they said were "some of their heroes."
Members of the Air Force Security Forces community celebrate their completion of the Ruck March to Remember in New York City, the site of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Sunday.
This wreath, placed at Battery Park in New York City on Sunday, honors the sacrificies made by the United States Air Force since Sept. 11, 2001.
NEW YORK -- Julie Lamont tried to collect herself but couldn't.
"What did he say to you?" her daughter, Stephanie, asked, looking beyond the tears rolling down her mother's face at the airman standing just behind her. "Come on. What did he say?"
Julie took a deep breath.
"He lost his leg in Afghanistan," she said, looking down. "His dog got blown up, too. I mean, look at him. He's just a kid."
But 4th Fighter Wing Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell did not break down Sunday when he told the countless New Yorkers and tourists who approached him his story.
In fact, he made it clear that even on the 10th anniversary of the attacks that thrust him into combat, he sees himself as just another service member -- another airman who has made sacrifices for his country.
And despite the fact that, from the moment he entered Battery Park to lay a wreath with his comrades from the Air Force Security Forces community, hundreds of people turned their focus to him and his Military Working Dog, Charlie, he knew that the crowd would soon understand the real reason he was standing among them.
He knew that other heroes would soon enter the fray -- that the Ruck March to Remember would be ending just a few feet away; that a guidon that began its journey July 12 in San Antonio, Texas, would soon make its way along the Hudson River and past the Statue of Liberty; that the airmen carrying it would bring their own stories of months spent away from loved ones, friends lost and wounds suffered.
They would understand that the wars waged after 9/11 were about more than fallen troops and wounded warriors -- that every man and woman who serves has a story.
Members of the 4th Security Forces Squadron were among those who completed the 2,000-plus-mile cross country journey they created to honor the sacrifices made on 9/11 and in the wars that followed.
And for them, just being in New York was an emotional experience.
It took them back to where they were when their nation fell under attack.
Seekell was still in high school.
"The TV was on and we saw the towers burning. At first, we didn't know what had happened," he said. "But then, staring at the screen, you watch the second plane hit the towers and everyone just goes quiet. Everybody knew."
Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Broughman had just begun his military career when he saw the attacks unfold on MSNBC -- a moment he relived Sunday morning when he turned on that same news network.
"They were showing it. It was the same broadcast I had watched while I was putting my boots on getting ready to go to work," he said. "It takes you back."
The airman's commander, Maj. Jim Alves, woke up to a similar experience.
"Watching the news footage this morning, it brought it all back," he said.
"The emotions of that day came back."
But those images did not only take them back to Sept. 11, 2001.
It took them to those outside-the-wire missions.
It took them to those moments when they said goodbye to a wife or child before boarding a plane bound for war.
And while those feelings of shock and sadness returned, so, too, did a hope each has felt since operations in Iraq and Afghanistan began -- a sense of duty to ensure the world their children will grow up in is better than the one it has been since terror reigned on a September morning.
"We aren't the first generation to be up against something like this. I mean, Pearl Harbor was a long time ago, but that generation was blind-sided just like we were," Broughman said. "And they rose to the challenge just like we have today."
"I didn't want to be one of those guys, the armchair quarterbacks talking about how to save the world," he said. "I wanted to be able to say that I, at least, did my part -- picked up a rifle and did what little I could to help.
"My kids aren't old enough right now to understand it, but soon, they will know that they are growing up in a time of turmoil -- a time of war. ... So some might say that I have done enough, but I'm not done yet. I'm going to press on."
The crowd did not dissipate when a group of airmen passed Seekell and Charlie and stopped in front of an eternal flame.
It only grew when a Security Forces colonel talked about the Air Force's role in the Global War on Terror.
And after a wreath was placed -- and saluted -- by those who had just completed a cross country journey that had become something far more meaningful that its creators had ever anticipated, a thunderous applause rang out across Battery Park.
Jennifer Bateman wiped a tear from her eye when two young girls asked their mother if they could take a photograph with some of their heroes.
Karen Rose rubbed her arms to fight off goosebumps.
And then there was George Guiterrez, who said what he had just witnessed was "a pretty powerful additional to a day that's left me speechless."
"I can't even talk right now," he said. "This right here is America. Kind of gives you hope, doesn't it? It shows you that New York -- the world -- hasn't forgotten."