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A 9/11 First Responder Confronts Painful Memories

SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 | 3-minute read

For Cliff, the morning of 9/11 started out like any normal Tuesday. But as the 25-year-old Army Veteran was walking to work at the Pentagon, a plane crashed into the building — and suddenly everything changed. He immediately rushed to assist with recovery when he reached the site.

A Fateful Morning at the Pentagon

“A lot of smoke, a lot of people with injuries,” Cliff recalls. “We did as much as we could that day.” The next day was even more difficult. “We didn’t find anybody alive,” he says.

After two harrowing days of searching through rubble, Cliff finally went home, took off his gear, and put it away in a box — along with his painful memories.

“It was hard for me to cope,” he says. “So I just kept it to myself.”

But the memories Cliff buried took a toll. Nightmares led to trouble sleeping. He started drinking more, and feelings of guilt led to thoughts of suicide. Cliff still wondered if there was anything he could have done to save the lives of those who died at the Pentagon. One night he wrote a note and took 20 sleeping pills. His brother found him unconscious on the couch and rushed him to the hospital.

“[Counseling] makes me a stronger soldier and a stronger man.”

“When I woke up in the hospital, that was probably the brightest day I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Cliff, “because then I realized that was not the road to go down.”

During his hospital stay, Cliff connected with a counselor whose professional treatment helped him open up about his challenges. “The most important thing for me was to get help. … It felt like a big weight being taken off my chest,” he said.

Feelings of guilt and hopelessness are common symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Every day, Veterans from all branches and eras of service get treatment for PTSD and find significant relief from their symptoms. Cliff found that relief through counseling.

“It’s important that soldiers do know that people go through dark places … and that’s OK,” said Cliff. “You need to go to a trained professional to help you through those things and give you steps so you can deal with those issues and problems when they come up.”

The difficult memories of 9/11 will never go away. But through counseling, Cliff has learned how to handle his triggers — and he’s back to enjoying life.

“Life’s good,” he says. “My son’s eight years old. That gives me a reason to wake up every day. I don’t think it could get any better.”


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