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'I Can Still See Their Faces': Mental Health First Responder Helped Soldiers Who Recovered Bodies At The Pentagon After 9/11

A photo showing an ID badge for Red Cross volunteer Judith Markey (whose former last name, Sewickley, is on the badge).
Courtesy
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Judith Markey, then Sewickley, worked as a psychologist assigned to triage the mental health needs of Pentagon first responders after 9/11. She specifically worked with young soldiers whose job it was to recover the bodies of those who had died in the attack.

My name is Judith Markey. I'm a clinical psychologist from Peacham, Vermont. Every year in early September, I start to feel very cranky, sad. I feel like something's tugging at me, and I'm not exactly sure what's happening. And then I remember — or my husband reminds me — that it's almost 9/11.

This story is part of VPR’s 9/11 remembrance project, featuring the voices of Vermonters reflecting on how their lives were changed by 9/11. To find the full project, go to www.vpr.org/911.

On 9/11, I was at work in the morning, and my office was in Falls Church, which is really very close to the Pentagon. I had my Red Cross vest in the backseat of my car, and I drove over. Of course, every fire department from all around the area — and then the military fire departments also — like, everybody showed up in that first hour or two, and so it was complete mayhem.

The next day, I went with an emergency response vehicle. The mental health person is usually always connected to one of the emergency response vehicles. I was posted with this platoon of soldiers who did their search and recovery of the bodies.

They worked in teams. Each of the teams that went in to do the recovery of the bodies consisted of an FBI person, a FEMA person and a small group of these soldiers, who are from The Old Guard. They're mostly ceremonial, they guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they do the military honor services at funerals at Arlington Cemetery, and they escort the president during ceremonial events. And so these kids were really, really young, and just really out of boot camp, and really had never been to war or seen that kind of trauma. And this was kind of a war zone, I think. It was a terrorist attack, so it was a war zone. And I worked directly with them, as an American Red Cross disaster mental health first responder, and so I heard what they were seeing.

You know, they found bodies, people sitting at their desks, and burned, and the jet fuel made everything burn really fast. And people ... they sort of died where they were standing. Like, people died on the stairs as they were trying to get out of the building. So the soldiers described those things to me. And then the soldiers were the ones that had to place the bodies in the bag or the body parts in the bags and carry them out of the building, to the makeshift morgue. And then as the days went on, it became more of a formalized response.

"I'm grateful to have been there. If I could play a small part in how someone might have responded to the trauma that they were experiencing, and that could shift their ability to move on with their lives, and be able to process that trauma better by getting the resources that they need, and the help that they might need, that's very meaningful to me."
Judith Markey

I never saw any of those soldiers again. The pro bono work that I do is with trauma, particularly disaster trauma. And I saw a lot of people who were at or near the Pentagon, or had somebody connected to them in the years following in my psychotherapy practice, but I never did see those soldiers again. I can still see their faces.

I'm grateful to have been there. If I could play a small part in how someone might have responded to the trauma that they were experiencing, and that could shift their ability to move on with their lives, and be able to process that trauma better by getting the resources that they need, and the help that they might need, that's very meaningful to me.

I think 9/11's effect on me ... well, the first thing is that I really stopped doing disaster mental health response, for a long time. I really needed a break after that. I mean, it was traumatic for me, and I think I experienced some post-traumatic stress from it. And obviously, based on my response every year, you know, it's not — it's not the kind of trauma where I'm walking down the street and I hear a car backfire and I jump, like what happens to soldiers sometimes. But certainly, I get the underlying sadness and grief.

I think 9/11 challenged us culturally, because our sense of safety was compromised. We don't experience the kinds of things like people who live in Lebanon and Afghanistan experience, where their sense of safety is compromised, really on an ongoing basis. I think 9/11 gave us a taste of that.

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