A wake-up call in 2002 may have been the beginning of a series of events that has not stopped since that day. It was 9 a.m. on September 11th. Yes, THAT September 11th. I was living in my parent’s house in Fresh Meadows, Queens at the time. My phone was ringing; my best friend was on the other line.
“Hey, look out your window!”, my friend Myther exclaimed.
My room was situated on the second floor, northwest corner of the house, with a view of the Twin Towers in the distance. Peering out my window, I saw the gray figure of one of the towers with smoke coming out of it. The sight confused me as I had just woken up and was running late for work. Turning on the television near my window, I watched live news coverage of the smoking tower while seeing the smoke billowing out of the tower in person from afar.
“Hey, it could be an accident. Remember when that bomber flew into the Empire State Building back in the days?” Being graduates from the city’s Aviation High School, Myther and I were aviation history buffs and knew about this unfortunate mishap that had occurred during World War II. Shortly after I said that, the second plane crashed into the second tower. Silence fell over the phone and we lost cell phone reception. My heart sank and my tongue felt like it had retreated and fallen down my esophagus. I understood then that we had just witnessed was not an accident but an intentional attack.
A year prior to that event, I had been interning for a small investment company on the commodities trading floor of the World Trade Center. I owe the opportunity to my high school principal who saw the potential in me and made it her mission to see that I graduated from high school. The internship provided me with real world work experience while allowing me to complete credits that would allow me to receive my high school diploma.
The fireball that had erupted from one of the twin towers after the airplane crashed into it made me instantly think of all the people I interacted and worked with during my internship. My hope was that they were all okay, but I would later find out that some of them were in the towers during the attacks.
I went to work that morning and was told to head home as there was no reason for us to be there. I was missing the view of the World Trade Center that would bless the western skies of some major streets in Queens. Like many New Yorkers and Americans that morning, I felt a little lost as to why such evil came to our front door. That feeling turned into a feeling of inadequacy.
“What can I do to pitch in?”, I asked myself. I felt useless, but I would not let myself feel victimized. Two weeks later I walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office and signed up to be a rifleman in the infantry. My plan was to be there in person – upfront and personal. Join the military and make it count. The Marine Corps infantry, was in my mind, my fast track way to get there. My family and wife (then girlfriend) protested, but they (along with my friends) knew this feeling burned inside me.
Two deployments to Iraq later, I’m not sure that I have been able to do much to improve myself since my decision to join the Marine Corps. I had more questions than answers. Had I been able to fulfill my feelings of inadequacy? Had I gotten the retaliation I sought after? Did I end up doing more harm than good?
I had chosen not to re-enlist for another 4 years after my original enlistment period. I had been caught up in one too many “lucky” moments, and I was sure I would soon run out of “luck”. Some of my friends were killed during our deployments, some had gotten severely wounded, and now some of the Marines I considered to be the strongest were eliminating themselves one by one. Some nights I would wake up in full sweat from nightmares that were still in my mind. The rest of the day would be spent trying to get rid of the feeling that someone was trying to kill me.
Then along came my career. I signed up for an EMT course at a nearby community college. To pay for the course, I sold my XBox on EBay along with other non-issued military gear I bought for my deployments. At night, I started bouncing at a bar in downtown Manhattan where they paid me cash at the end of every night. It was just enough to pay for the course.
My first ride along was on unit 50C in the neighborhood of Jamaica/Hollis where I grew up when I first immigrated from the Philippines. I was anxious. In top shape, I felt ready to kick down doors but inside that’s not what I wanted to do. I was looking to help people. My preceptor was Mikey, a smooth talking EMT that reminded me of the rapper Kool Moe Dee and was just as fluid on the EMS radio as the rapper was on the mic. Everyone seemed to know Mikey as we cruised around the neighborhood.
Our first call was one for a head injury. Some guy must have pissed off his wife because she took a glass vase and smashed it over his head. When we entered their apartment, I felt hyper-vigilant. I “cut the pie” and checked out blind spots as we had done in Close Quarter Combat training. It felt different after I got in there. There was no flipping the place upside down in search of weapons or IED making material. It was talk to the person and find out their story. As we spoke to the couple, my eyes wandered and I could see the numerous pictures on their walls, the spices in their kitchen, their unmade bed, the poorly lit living room. In my head I put together their lifestyle just from these images and it humanized my position. There was no longer a hostile threat.
“Student, come over here and check this guy’s head out like they taught you in school.” Mikey snapped me out of my thoughts. I put on gloves and started palpating the guy’s head and removed some glass fragments that remained in his hair. “Are you going to give a free head massage or are you going to talk to the guy?”. Mikey was right. Here I am a complete stranger and just running my hands through your head. How was I supposed to let them know I was trusted to be there to help? I asked the man if he lost consciousness, if he had any other injuries and gave him advice on how to bob and weave.
This was a totally different me. I was now more sociable and I even admit, funny at times. To get the job done (or mission accomplished), I had to have an open personality. When I left the Marines, I kept to myself as I felt the rest of the world didn’t know what I was about, and I wasn’t used to the conversations out in the real world. I didn’t have the opportunity to watch certain shows, or follow any teams so what did I have to talk about besides war? Sadly, conversations with patients seemed to be the easiest ones to make. We were both in unfortunate situations and I learned to make the best of it with my sense of humor and comforting explanations about how we were there to help.
The rest of the night, I got to talk to a psyche patient (after I ended up tackling him – Mikey wasn’t happy about that). Turned out we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things and he agreed to go with us to see a psychiatrist.
I sat in the back of the ambulance just looking out the window; these were the same streets I had grown up on. I saw the store where I had saved up my allowance to buy my first skateboard on Jamaica Avenue. There was a war I had been involved in thousands of miles away where we dealt destruction; meanwhile, there were streets at home that needed help. My focus was renewed and my new career had chosen me.
“Zoleta, if you can put as much energy in studying as to how hard you work, there’s no stopping you.” This was the advice I had received from our Corpsman Doc Mcdonnell. I had told him I didn’t feel smart enough to return to school and to get into the medical field. Like so much of his other advice, he was on point about what he said. After my first ride along, I was now hard at work studying as it was my goal to return to the same streets where I had grown up, and learned at a young age what New York was all about.
Many service members going back into civilian life have a hard time with the transition. At times I still do, but what I have learned from that fateful September 11th morning, is that my calling has been to help others. What service members often miss the most is the bond built when everyone pitches together for a greater cause. That bond sometimes isn’t there in the civilian world. And profit sometimes seems to be the greater focus. It’s the monotonous work of every day life that can kill us inside. But there are greater things to be done out there.
I put together “The Black 6 Project” to satisfy my inner craving of breaking away from the every day life and to have a chance to change the world. The world may not change from just one mission, but if I can get help to a sick child that may not get the care he or she needs otherwise, then I have changed my world. My motto nowadays is “To reach and help those in need, and in turn to satisfy the need to serve and belong”. Thank you for joining me in this next chapter of my life.