On the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, area residents came together not only to recognize those who made sacrifices on that day, but to recognize the enduring effect of the yet-unresolved wars that followed.
During a memorial ceremony Wednesday evening at the Hampden Township Veterans Park, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7530 Commander Jeff Puckett reminded the crowd that the nation is heading into an unprecedented era, where veterans of the still-ongoing wars in the Middle East are taking leadership roles.
Congress has 96 veterans, 48 of them from post-9/11, Puckett said, encouraging veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts to get involved, from the local level on up.
“People look up to you,” Puckett said. “Don’t waste that opportunity to be a part of or have a say in the next chapter of this nation.”
Wednesday’s event, organized by the Hampden Township Veterans’ Recognition Committee in conjunction with VFW posts 7530 and 6704, and American Legion Post 751, featured the laying of a military-style field cross to honor those that responded, and in some cases sacrificed their lives, on Sept. 11.
One of those was Sammy Oitice, a New York City firefighter who died when the World Trade Center collapsed. A photo of Oitice was placed beneath the flag at Wednesday’s ceremony, brought by his cousin, Jody Proetta, a close friend of one of the Hampden Township event’s organizers.
Proetta and her husband, Tony, have traveled from their home in Putnam Valley, New York, to a number of 9/11 remembrance ceremonies.
“It always makes me feel good to know that people don’t forget what happened,” Proetta said.
In 2001, she was a nurse at a hospital in Westchester. The hospital sent ambulances south to bring back any overflow of victims from New York City’s hospitals, but there weren’t enough survivors to make it necessary, Proetta said, one of her most haunting memories.
Hampden Township Police Chief Steven Junkin, who in 2001 was a Pennsylvania State Police trooper, provided security at the Flight 93 crash site.
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Junkin described his own traumatic memory — arriving at the site to find not an intact plane, but a still-burning hole filled with shards of metal and the smell of jet fuel.
Junkin also touched on the generational aspect of 9/11. In the 2019 local elections, there will be young voters going to the polls who were born after the attacks, and Junkin challenged the audience to educate young people about the enduring impact 9/11 has had on the American way of life.
This is especially poignant for first responders, for whom the event has an emotional as well as a professional impact in the way that law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel plan for mass casualty events, Junkin said.
“The worldview of emergency first responders in the United States changed forever that day,” Junkin said.
Puckett said that as soldiers of his own generation retire, they’re being replaced by those who may have never experienced a military that wasn’t at war, and who joined the armed forces knowing that the nation was involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Further, on the 18th anniversary of the attacks, it’s possible that new recruits will enlist to fight in a conflict that started before they were born.
Puckett also shared his personal connection to the terrorist attacks: As a veteran of the first Gulf War, as well as the post-9/11 conflicts, he was close enough to the Pentagon to feel the ground shake when the plane hit, he said.
Every soldier that he worked with on that day, and afterward, has shown a great deal of both confidence and humility in the face of adversity, he said.
“Like most veterans, they’re supremely confident in their skills, but also very humble,” Puckett said.