One 9/11 First Responder Reflects: ‘Life is Duty’

Sep 11, 2021 | PDA Blog

By Donna Smith, Chair, Healthcare NOT Warfare Campaign / Advisory Board Chair | Progressive Democrats of America

Respect is hollow in absence of shared sacrifice

   Today we will look back and remember together and in solitude the day we watched the Twin Towers fall.  It seems impossible 20 years have passed, and it seems impossible that the 9/11 first responders we held in our hearts with reverence would now feel disrespected and unheard.  We prop them up as heroes then dismiss them as zeroes – we all recall the old phrase, “hero to zero,” and it has perhaps never been so true as it is on this twentieth anniversary of 9/11 

     For 9/11 first responder Regina Cervantes, 60, now of California, the annual emotional, mental and physiological strain of 9/11 memories started much earlier this year.  Asked to define her willingness to race in to help others even in the face of incredible danger, “We understand duty.  We understand sacrifice.  I believe in a sense of duty.  My family always has.”  Looking at her computer’s camera with a searing sense of intention, Cervantes lists many generations in her family who have served in the military, right down to her only son who is now serving in the United States Army.  

     The crystalline blue sky in Manhattan early on that day 20 years ago is not what Cervantes sees.  She sees debris everywhere, she sees people running, and she sees dead people.  Though tears well in her eyes as she remembers 9/11 once again, she laughs softly about that phrase, “I see dead people, and I joke about it sometimes, but it’s really true.”  Part of the problem in the 9/11 first responder community for Cervantes and fellow responders is that some are intent on proving the veracity of their sacrifice in comparison to other first responders.  “The reality that day and now is that very few of us were in communication with other sites where responders had rushed in.  The experience on that day was different and isolating from those who spent weeks working rubble piles and searching for bodies. No one’s experience was the same.”

     In some ways she believes the pressures women first responders feel were/are often like the Afghani women felt (and feel again now) trying to speak up and fight for equality, decency and for peace. “They (and we) were silenced.” She understands that in our country she has the hope for much better and has had opportunities that women in other countries may never have.  Yet she sometimes feels the sting on social media from some first responders.  That adds to the lingering trauma.

     Her thoughts about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan are strong and direct. “Don’t ask me to send my son.  Don’t ask us to send our children if you are not willing to fight with yours,” Cervantes said.  Asked if she fears for her son’s safety in the Army, she quickly responds, “No, not at all.  We understood and we understand that life is duty.  Duty to one another.  Life is sacrifice.  We understand that.”  Her thoughts about the Afghan war seem more pointed at foreign reliance on America’s willingness to risk the lives of our military troops without what she sees as an equal willingness of those foreign parents to defend their homeland(s) with their own daughters and sons.  It sounds harsh as she says it, but it sounds truthful and well thought out.

     Cervantes has faced numerous cancer bouts, breathing issues and PTSD she attributes to her service on 9/11 and the aftermath of fighting for her healthcare to be covered by either/both the World Trade Center fund or her private insurance.  Many of the first responders have faced serious health problems, and many have died long, painful deaths related to 9/11 induced illnesses.  The toxins in the air lingered for weeks, and it was rare for us to see responders wearing any protective gear at all.  Weeks and weeks and months went by on piles of rubble.  And years later, the impact is always just a memory away.  

     Cervantes traveled to major medical centers to get care, and even if the source of her illness wasn’t always clear to her providers, she always knew without a doubt that her health turned much less stable following her 9/11 service.  Medical bills are sometimes huge and not fully covered.  It took years of struggle and a celebrity presence to push the U.S. Congress to pass the bill that the reauthorized funds for relief to 9/11 responders, volunteers and other 9/11 victims once many had exhausted personal policies, state programs, and other benefits.  Comedian Jon Stewart helped add his voice to the cry for help in emotional testimony to Congress in 2019.  It seems some of the funds had been used inappropriately by the city of New York and benefits had been cut and limited.  Stewart helped some of the most grievously ill responders get to their elected officials to plead and demand that they not be left to die.  Funding was reauthorized for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. For Cervantes and other responders, the need to fight for healthcare seems especially cruel in the wake of those same elected officials professing respect and gratitude to those who served.  

     She has had multiple requests to speak this year as our 9/11 hero worship endures.  Yet, the bittersweet recognition seems a bit hollow.  The global COVID19 pandemic seems to have stripped bare the harshness of the divides in our society.  For Cervantes, those who refuse public upstate New York, and it would have been good to be with other responders who are the only ones who truly understand what she feels.  “We wanted to be together, but because of the pandemic, it seems that it will be mostly the families of those lost that day who will be there and be publicly remembered.”  for those who have sacrificed so much on the behalf of all who may need emergency help.  “You didn’t see this (vaccine hesitancy) with polio.  As soon as that (polio) vaccine was available, the lines were full.”

     Cervantes is the mother of two grown children, but on 9/11 those kids were still little ones in need of care and supervision.  Even amid shared effort and sacrifice as a first responder that day, she has felt the sting of judgement from other responders about leaving her kids and racing to Ground Zero.  Mothers, it seems, were asked why they didn’t stay home to comfort their frightened children.  She has yet to hear a male responder asked that same question.  Yet, Cervantes knows in her heart that she did the only thing she could on that day.  She did what she was trained to do.  Her children were safely with a trusted adult, and she modeled the sacrifice and courage so needed in life and perhaps even more so this year than those many years ago.

         Asked how people might honor the memories of all who died, she did not hesitate. “Care about each other.  Care enough to get vaccinated.  It’s rarely more than 20 minutes wearing a mask in the grocery store or in a crowd.  The vaccine is easy to get and will help us all.  We have a duty to ourselves and others.  I may not be able to put a uniform on as an EMT anymore, but I can give in small ways,” she interjects.  It’s not a political issue at all, she adds.  “It’s a matter of public health.”  Those who refuse to follow the health guidance about vaccination or masking during the pandemic are showing “incredible selfishness” and disregard for others, in Cervantes view.

      She seems to be reminding us that we aren’t being asked to sacrifice in the Twin Towers or fight against terrorists on the planes over Pennsylvania or race to the crash site at the Pentagon on 9/11 and the ways we might respect and care for those who served as first responders that day and so many more following it. She didn’t sound as if she was judging others, yet Cervantes was swift and clear with her response.

     What she was angry about was a press release she saw recently inviting people to attend a celebration of 9/11.  “There will never be a celebration of 9/11,” she said. “It is a day to reflect and remember and to care about one another.”

     Pausing to reassure us that she has helped work the pandemic as an interpreter.  Cervantes speaks fluent Spanish.  She hopes if she can pull it all together after the pandemic, she’d love to go to school to become a certified nursing assistant and work in a hospital.  “I think I still have a lot to give to society,” she muses.  It is difficult to imagine that she’d even wonder about that.

Submitted with deep admiration, respect and gratitude.

Author’s Note:  On Saturday morning, September 4, 2021, one short week before we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I received a message from Regina that read, in part, “Yesterday at 5:30 a.m. my service dog Banshee woke me up. She is 12 years old and can’t get on the bed anymore, but she did. I thought she wanted to eat or go out and sometimes she wants me to walk her. I jumped in the shower (8 mins) and when I got out, she was waiting for me whining. Signaling something was wrong. I opened the back door, which is next to my shower and saw smoke and flames coming out of the garage.”  She went on to report that her 75-year-old housemate was first to get out with some of the pets.  Fortunately, everyone was out safely in the end, but no cause of the garage fire has been determined, and the contents, including Regina’s car were a total loss.  

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