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Back to the Future

By Frank J. Zenere

History tells us that in order to move forward, we must sometimes look back. And so as we prepare to commemorate the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we as a nation will pause to remember those who perished and reflect upon how our lives have been forever altered. Most assuredly, a decade has not filled the void of loss experienced by the families, friends, and colleagues of those who died on that September morning. On a macro level, the collective psyche of America was stunned by the actions of a handful of terrorists. For the first time in the modern era, the United States was shockingly and suddenly vulnerable to heinous and indiscriminate acts of mass violence.

As a result of the attacks on our country, leadership took decisive measures to shield the citizenry from further harm. A decade-long war on terror was initiated to neutralize the threat posed to our people. The commitment to fight terror abroad came at a cost, as thousands of our military men and women have died or been injured. A multilevel, color-coded warning system was developed to inform the populous of potential threats to our safety. Airport and airline security was strengthened and access to government structures was closely monitored. Greater access to personal information by government and law enforcement officials was sanctioned by the Patriot Act. Although most people accepted these changes in stride, seeing them as necessary tools used to combat terrorism, others saw these actions as an assault on our privacy and a violation of our civil rights. Living in the shadow of threat is the “new normal” for residents of the United States. For the most part, we as a people have adapted to the changes brought about to enhance our safety and security. However, lost in this process of change was the sense of innocence and invincibility that shielded us from the horror that other countries have known too well.

As a school psychologist, former member and chairperson of NASP's National Emergency Assistance Team, member of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Crisis Management Team, and credentialed crisis responder for the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), I have responded to hundreds of crises over the years, including earthquakes in Turkey, El Salvador, and Haiti; hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana; tornadoes in the southern states; suicide clusters; and school shootings. However, few were as memorable as my experience serving as a member of NOVA's Community Crisis Response Team following the attack in New York City. Never in my years of professional service had I intimately encountered the aftermath of such premeditated evil. This was not a natural disaster, nor accidental in origin; it was a deliberate act that was intended to cause shock and grief to an entire nation.

Assigned to the New Jersey Family Assistance Center at Liberty State Park, I provided crisis support services to dozens of surviving family members and colleagues of those who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Utilizing a blend of counseling skills and companionship, I ushered survivors through myriad support services administered by a variety of agencies. The days were long, beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending at 11:00 p.m. Among all my experiences at the Family Assistance Center, there is one that is etched in my memory. As part of our support services, we escorted families of the deceased to the ground zero recovery site so that they could pay their respects to their fallen loved ones, many of whom at the time lay buried beneath the tons of smoking rubble. As we arrived at the site, the laborers ceased their work to provide survivors a moment of solace and peace. The period of total silence in the presence of such destruction and loss was overwhelming for many. For survivors, the journey to ground zero seemed to confirm the finality and profoundness of the loses they incurred. Bearing witness to the suffering of so many wounded souls has had a lasting impact on me as a human being and as a mental health practitioner.

My time spent at the Family Assistance Center was both fulfilling and emotionally exhausting. I felt that I provided comfort to many and believed that I made a difference for those desperately seeking someone to listen to them and have their pain validated. My crisis intervention skills served me well in meeting such a daunting challenge. However, there are always lessons to be learned. I learned that the use of companionship, however temporary, can be a powerful tool that promotes communication and supports healing. I also learned that mental health support can be provided in highly structured environments or at venues that can trigger intense emotions. Lastly, I realized that in order to be effective, I need to monitor my level of physical and emotional well-being during extended interventions.

Personally, on September 11, 2011, I will remember the images and sounds of that horrific day a decade past; I will recall the stories shared with me by survivors; I will remember their tears; and I will honor their request that I never forget them and their lost ones. I will also dream of the day in which our children and grandchildren no longer have to live in fear.

Cindy Dickinson, NCSP, is manager of crisis intervention and dropout prevention for Fairfax County Public Schools. She is a member of the National Emergency Assistance Team and a liaison to the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Partners.