When Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell’s mother told him she was worried about him deploying here to a war zone, he responded with a shrug of his shoulders and in a heavy New York accent he said, “Ma, I work in the Bronx. I get bottles thrown at me from rooftops. I’ll be fine over there.”
Winchell’s full-time job is protecting the streets as a New York City patrolman in the 50th Precinct. His part-time job is as a fireman at the 105th Civil Engineering Squadron, Stewart Air National Guard Base, N.Y.
He does not remember sleeping during the first three days after the planes hit the World Trade Center, and he still has a hard time sleeping more than four hours at any given time.
Images race through his mind like seeing a fire truck pounded into a 1-foot deep chunk of twisted metal and picking photos of couples out of the rubble at Ground Zero and knowing that one of the people smiling up at him was probably dead.
However, the worst is knowing 343 firefighters and 23 police officers died, two from his precinct.
Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell, a firefighter from the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron, ties the flag to a fire truck in preparation for the base’s Patriot Day ceremony Sept. 10, 2002. Winchell spoke at the event, and shared stories about the destruction he personally witnessed at Ground Zero and the fellow coworkers he lost to the tragedy.
A year later, he is still searching for ways to deal with the pain of Sept. 11, 2001.
For him, pulling a tour of duty in Southwest Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom helps.
“It’s funny because many Americans want to see Ground Zero for closure,” said Winchell. “Cops and fireman who were on scene want to come here.”
His orders state he will be here 24 days, a number which annoys him.
One of his coworkers said he would volunteer to do dishes just to stay here longer.
Winchell says he would also roll up his sleeves right beside him, if given the opportunity.
Winchell said a tour here is one way for him and many others to take back power from the terrorists.
“I’ve seen the devastation at Ground Zero,” he said. “I had to carry caskets of some of my friends. You realize something has to be done or it will happen again if we don’t.”
The 23-year veteran said sometimes he sees people around base who don’t believe that they personally matter to fighting the war on terrorism. He disagrees.
“We are fighting terrorism from here,” Winchell said. “The tankers refuel the aircraft that go to the front lines, and they can’t do their mission without all of us. It takes the guys turning wrenches on the planes to the guys making our tents comfortable.
“Everyone can’t be the star of the team; you’ve got to have support people as well,” he said. “I can’t be the Special Forces unit smoking the enemy out of their holes, and I may be here for a short time, but I can help out.”
A year ago, he spent four days at Ground Zero on leave without pay to help clear the endless tons of rubble in the hopes of helping someone.
The destruction he saw there still haunts him.
“I stepped through a window in a building into another world,” Winchell said. “There were fires burning in different spots. You would be crawling around and under steel beams… scrapping in the dirt with your hands trying to find survivors because there weren’t enough tools.”
Whenever he feels his resolve slip, he remembers the stories of the people’s lives who were affected by the tragedy.
Stories like the one about Stephen Driscoll, a 38-year-old officer assigned to Winchell’s precinct who was buried alive under tons of rubble trying to rescue victims after the planes hit the Twin Towers.
One story starts with Driscoll and his partner driving by a post office in an emergency vehicle, when he spotted a flag that was wrapped around the flagpole. Driscoll stopped, took out a ladder and unfurled the flag. Then he went inside and told them he would be back again if he saw the flag wasn’t waving freely.
Described by Winchell as one of the most patriotic American citizen he ever met, Driscoll was survived by his wife, Ann, and their 15-year-old son, Barry.
It’s a true account that makes Winchell laugh, not just a small chuckle but a deep belly laugh.
The father of two children, Kaitlin, 13, and Ian, 11, he believes laughter is the best medicine.
“You have to find the humor in it,” Winchell said. “Some guys here are miserable. You have to find ways to cope and entertain yourself.”
At first glance, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Retzlaff, 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron chief of maintenance, seems like he has coping with 9/11 down pat. A three-time grandfather, he’s the epitome of a fun loving, “look on the bright side of life”-type of guy.
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Retzlaff, 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron, pauses for a moment as he remembers the destruction he saw at Ground Zero at the base’s Patriot Day ceremony Sept. 10. Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell, 380 ECES, (pictured to his right) also helped clear rubble at Ground Zero and spoke at the ceremony. Both men volunteered to do a tour here to gain closure of the events of 9/11 and snuff out terrorism.
Some might argue that can’t be too hard for Retzlaff, when he pulls his monthly reserve duty at the 624th Civil Engineering Squadron, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
However, his military assignments haven’t always been so comfy.
He spent three years active duty in the Marines where he served three tours in Vietnam, and five years active duty in the Air Force with one tour in Vietnam. He fought in both Desert Shield and Storm, and most recently he served at Ground Zero trying to rescue thousands of noncombatants.
“I’ve seen my fair share of death and destruction. I never expected to see someone take the fight to our sovereign soil,” Retzlaff said.
The father of four (Michael, 32, Carla, 30, Keo, 17, Darak, 18) and husband to Shari has given more than enough to his country over his 34 years and 8 months of military service.
But he needed to do one more tour of duty here.
It’s still hard for him to talk about Ground Zero, but he takes comfort in being around others and talking to the lord.
After a Patriot Day ceremony held for the members of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Sept. 10, 2002, more than 200 base personnel formed a line and waited more than a half an hour in the blistering, 100-degree sun to sign a memorial board dedicated to the 9/11 victims. The sign is engraved with the words, “380 AEW remembers those slain 9/11/01” on the top and “Let’s Roll” on the bottom.
Both men are quick to point out closure won’t come until those who are responsible are brought to justice.
“The terrorists are criminals not soldiers,” said Winchell. “They just killed more than an average criminal does. They committed the crime, so we have to go after them.”
Article and photos by Melissa LeGates (under my former name Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs)
– Originally published in the Sand Script, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, newsletter Sept. 15, 2002
– Reprinted on Air Force Print News Sept. 18, 2002
– Reprinted on Department of Defense News about the War on Terrorism page Dec. 31, 2003.
Melissa LeGates is a professional writer and retired Air Force journalist. She specializes in long-form feature writing and loves to write about living a victorious Christian life, art and health. She and her husband live in Delaware. In her free time, she is a student of colored pencil, watercolor, acrylics and oils.
Melissa is an avid blogger and currently maintains three sites:
– Read excerpts and follow my progress writing my first book “Set My Captives Free” at https://setmycaptivesfree.wordpress.com
– Read published clips from my professional portfolio at https://melissalegates.wordpress.com
– Read about the world of colored pencil art and artists at http://coloredpencilenthusiast.wordpress.com.
You can contact Melissa at email@example.com.