On September 11, 2001, as I attempted to process the horror I was witnessing on television and a range of emotions, I headed to the grocery store where I worked, despite having the day off. I spent some time just standing in the parking lot listening to the car radio, then inside talking with co-workers. I had a subconscious need not to be alone.
On September 11, 2002, I found myself again trying to process emotions and decide how to observe the day best and remember the victims. I defiantly rode to the top of the Arch, despite it being on one of the multitudes of lists of possible attack targets that endlessly made news in those days. I spent much of the rest of the day on a pedestrian bridge over 64/40 waving my American flag in view of many enthusiastically honking motorists but still feeling alone. That same day, fellow St. Louisan Bo Drochelman was processing many of the same feelings. He was filled with a sense of angst about adequately paying tribute to the victims while working through those feelings. Bo grabbed his American flag off the front porch and started walking. He didn’t stop walking until he reached the base of the Arch, some 21 miles from his home. March to the Arch was born, an annual 21-mile memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
In 2003, I heard about this March on the radio. I didn’t have time to take the day off work, but since I lived along the March route, I left my home on foot with my American flag waving proudly and walked west until I came together with the Marchers. I have proudly joined them every year since. In the beginning, I began this journey to pay tribute to those who lost and gave their lives that day, and in hopes of causing people to remember if only for an instant. The things I have experienced on the route are far more moving than I set out to be for someone else. Construction workers stop their work and put their hard hats over their hearts. People come out of homes, nursing homes, businesses, and across schoolyards to cheer us on. Once, a group of college students crossing campus saw us and pulled out their band instruments to play the Star-Spangled Banner. On another occasion, a motorist stopped beside me and handed me a bracelet with her brother’s name on it. He perished at the World Trade Center, and even though she couldn’t make the walk, she wanted his spirit with us. I see my fellow Marchers only once a year, but each year we come together. I think of them as my 9/11 family, and now I am never alone on that day. Hopefully, in addition to that inspiration we provide and receive, we capture a bit of that unity that buoyed us and gave us hope in those awful post 9/11 days.
One of the most inspirational memories from the Marches came in 2011, on the 10-year commemoration. On that day, we took a slight detour into Forest Park to walk past Art Hill, where almost 3,000 American flags flew. Each one was an individual tribute to a civilian or first responder killed in the 9/11 attacks. It was a beautiful sight but also a stark reminder of the enormity of what occurred that day. It was there that I had the honor to meet Rick Randall and some of the many volunteers that made the first Flags of Valor happen. I asked to be added to the volunteer roster. As I had with Bo Drochelman, I found a kindred spirit in Rick Randall and all those who participated in both observances. Through that intersection of memorials, I have had the distinct honor to continue to find ways to remember those lost while hopefully doing a bit of good as well.
Flags of Valor happened again in 2016. This time, each flag flew for a military hero killed in action since 9/11. Each flag represented a hero who gave their lives to prevent another 9/11. Each flag flew for someone who meant the world to someone. I have been able to meet many Gold Star family members of those for whom the flags flew. Their most fervent wish is that their loved one is never forgotten. Flags of Valor aims to do just that while raising funds and awareness of local military and veterans’ charities. Among Gold Star families, I have met some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever encountered. I am so blessed to work beside them to honor their loved ones by doing some good in the community. Sadly, the horrors of 9/11 and all the pain of the sacrifices made in the time can never be erased. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had through Flags of Valor and March to the Arch. The opportunity to unite with people from all walks of life, honor their lives, and recapture some of that unity and goodness extended to one another in the aftermath of that awful day.