The Woodward News

September 11, 2013

Memories, effects of 9/11

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — That day, September 11, 2001 might seem like a long time ago to some. But for others, it is a clear as if it happened yesterday.

Most of us remember-indeed, we couldn't forget, even if we tried-what we were doing that day when those planes slammed into the Twin Towers in New York City.

I was living in Shreveport, Louisiana then, working for The Shreveport Times as a reporter.

I was getting dressed for work that morning and I still remember the skirt I was pulling on, standing in front of the muted television.

I stopped, half-dressed and hit the sound button.

I distinctly remember thinking this was some movie-it had to be. Just about the time I hit the sound button, the second plane smashed into the second tower.

My memories of that day are tiny, insignificant seeming details-the color of my skirt, the sound of dogs barking in my backyard and my odd distraction by that.

But for those who survived that attack, or those who lost someone there, the memories play like a movie in their heads to which only they have a ticket.

So 12 years later, they might be talking a walk, or giving a presentation in a crowded meeting, or going to a movie with their sister when a scent or a sound triggers a memory.

 At that moment, it's as if no time has passed. The sounds, the smell of jet fuel, the feeling of choking dust or searing heat, the things they tasted, they can all act as a trigger, even when those people are not in any situation that is similar.

Those kinds of memories are etched in our minds. It is called "sensory memory", and it happens when we see, hear, smell, touch or taste something that was present when we experience a traumatic event-even when we are somewhere totally unrelated in every other way. It can even happen sometimes because of scents and sounds that we were not even cognitively aware of when the event happened.

I learned this after being present during the Marez Chow Hall bombing when 25 soldiers and military civilians were killed by a suicide bomber on our base near Mosul, Irag December 21, 2004.

That day, in all the fervor, the Turkish workers kept using their radios to call for help and those particular radios issued a funny series of three bells when the microphone was keyed.

To this day, when I hear a radio or device that uses that same tone, I am there.

A few years ago, I was in line at the bank and a fellow that obviously worked for the local meat packing plant was in line to deposit his check. He had blood on his jeans. Not normally anything that would bother me, since I am used to working in the cattle industry.

But the sight of it started my "movie". Seemingly powerless to stop it, I scanned my personal memory "video" of the day of the chow hall bombing while I stood there in line at the bank. In the "movie" a guy runs toward me, covered in someone else's blood who had fallen on him in the bombing.

This is the thing Hollywood likes to call "flashbacks" and I resent the way they depict them because they make us all look nuts. It is rarely as overwhelming as Hollywood depicts it. But it still drains the life outta you for a day. It makes you feel different and when you feel that different, you stop talking to people. And when you stop talking to people, you become even more different.

I say this, not to make anyone feel sorry for me.

It's to explain how the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even a mild case, can snatch you up out of the middle of an otherwise normal day and take you for a ride like no IMAX Theater ever could.

As the 12th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks draws near, I find myself thinking of those people who were there. I also have been thinking of people who have been present at many of the myriad attacks on our soil that have fractured our sense of peace and safety here.

I know someone personally here in Woodward who survived the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building. One of my best friends from college, Mark Treanor, lost his parents at the Alfred P. Murrah Building.

When I think of them, I know first hand, the mind battle they are struggling through just to try and live something that looks like a normal life.

It is good for us to gather and remember these events.

Not particularly for any political or patriotic reason.  Really, because it is a chance for those people to get together with other people who get it-who truly understand what it is like to be in a situation that awful.

I say that because, of all the struggles I had coming back to the United States after four years in a war zone, feeling alone was perhaps the worst.

It's hard for a soldier to explain to his/her family, spouse or children that even with everything they are trying to do for us, we still feel isolated.

It sounds selfish really, doesn't it? It's not meant to be though. It just is what it is.

Most of us come back eventually.

I used to wonder why my dad made sure not to miss the reunion of the Red River Rats, a group of fighter pilots that flew some of the most dangerous missions in Vietnam. There are a lot of people who sort of make fun of people who they hear talking to their military buddies, tellin' war stories.

What I know now is that those visiting sessions contain some powerful medicine for healing those type of war wounds.

I do it.

 I get together with people who were there with me. I do it because I want to be around someone who knows why I hate it when someone with sunglasses comes into a crowded restaurant. I like it that they don't think I am crazy.

I do it because I want to be with someone who was there in that moment when I was living life by the millisecond-someone who was there the very moment I found out who I really was.

Rachael Van Horn is a reporter for the Woodward News.