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Every 9/11 anniversary a reminder of grief, healing

The scars, and life lessons, are deep for two survivors of the Pentagon attack.

September 11, 2009|Faye Fiore

WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell is in Texas now. Army Chaplain Henry A. Haynes is in South Carolina. Eight years ago today, they were inside the Pentagon at 9:39 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 77 hit its mark.

The world tends to give its fullest attention to anniversaries that end in zero or five -- not eight. There will be bagpipes and drums in New York. The president will lay a wreath at the Pentagon. Most of the nation will take a collective pause and move on.

But for those like Birdwell and Haynes, directly touched by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, every anniversary is a powerful reminder of grief, and, as years go by, a kind of healing.

Birdwell was burned over 60% of his body. Today, he is retired from the Army and running a ministry for burn victims he founded with his wife.

Haynes was the Pentagon chaplain, coming up from a meeting in the basement when he heard chaos and spent the next 24 hours ministering to people who kept asking, "Why?" Today he is at Ft. Jackson, S.C., counseling combat troops.

"The key thing for those who lived it versus watched it, is the nation will recognize an anniversary," Birdwell said. "But when I look in the mirror and see the scars, I can concentrate on the terrible nature of what happened or I can concentrate on the Lord's grace in our lives."

Birdwell was standing about 20 yards from the point of impact. The plane exploded, and he was on fire. It took 30 surgeries and years of excruciating rehabilitation to piece him back together. When his wife, Mel, first saw him in the hospital, the doctors' best efforts to prepare her were insufficient.

Had anyone said to her then that she and her husband would write a book and found a ministry, she wouldn't have thought it possible. The book is "Refined by Fire"; the ministry is Face the Fire. They tour the country talking to combat-wounded soldiers and children pulled from infernos. Whenever asked if life will ever seem normal again, they answer yes.

"A number of things came out of that day," Birdwell says from his home in Granbury, Texas. "I knew my ability to compete for promotion was over. But the pastors who visited kept asking: 'How are you going to let the Lord use you for this story?' "

Not a day passes when he doesn't think of his two co-workers who perished. His joints don't bend the way they did and his lungs are damaged. But he thinks he looks pretty good "for a 47-year-old guy who got run over by a 747." (The plane was actually a 757.)

"If I want people to know one thing, it's this: I am alive today because of the miracle of Christ," he said.

Haynes doesn't need a calendar to know what time of year it is. Like most who were in the vicinity that day, a crisp, cloudless sky is a "9/11 day."

Since he left the Pentagon in 2002, he's had rotations at three posts. Each time, someone asks him to talk about the attack, and he does: the way Americans came together, the flags that hung from every overpass as he drove home, exhausted, and later from every house in his neighborhood.

"It changed me as a person," says Haynes, 56. "I have a far greater appreciation for the spirit of people in a time of need and how they came together. God is always there."

When soldiers going into or returning from combat seek his counsel, he references that Tuesday.

"It helps them to understand. It's something tangible they can get their arms around and say, 'He's not just talking off the top of his head,' " he said.

Still, it is easier to discuss other people's suffering than his own, he says. "I don't talk about that much. It was humbling. I don't have a good answer."

As anniversaries go, eight years isn't much of a milestone. The traditional wedding anniversary gift for eight isn't silver or gold, it's pottery: useful and durable, but fragile nonetheless.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

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