As the Director of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, I have the good fortune of exposing cadets at the U.S. Military Academy to a number of experiences that shape their worldviews about terrorism and counterterrorism. Sometimes we even get a special opportunity to shape their worldviews on life in general.
One of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences for cadets and faculty is our annual Fall trip to New York City. Surprisingly, we have not always done this, but we started an annual trip in 2014 with the intent of showing cadets the efforts to counter terrorism in the greatest city on the planet, just 50 miles south of West Point.
In addition to visiting with partners such as the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, NYPD, and the FDNY, we always spend the entire morning at the National 9/11 Museum and Memorial.
Regardless of whether it is your first time or your 100th time, it is guaranteed to be a moving experience. I learn something new every time I am there. If you have not visited it, you should make it a priority to do so. Many cadets say it is one of the most rewarding experiences of their West Point career, and almost every cadet wishes we could spend more time there.
In the wake of the February 26, 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, a memorial fountain was designed to honor the six victims of the attack. On September 11, the memorial fountain was destroyed. Bearing part of John DiGiovanni's name, only a single fragment from the 1993 memorial was recovered from the rubble. It can be seen on display with other 1993 artifacts at the #911Museum.
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If you do intend to visit, don't plan on spending an hour or two. You really should carve out the whole day. No matter how many hours you spend in this sacred place, it won't be enough.
On this last trip, I somehow spent more time in a lesser-known section of the memorial dedicated to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. On that cold February day, there was a guy caught in an elevator shaft. Thinking it was his final hour due to the heavy smoke that came pouring in, he wrote a hand-written letter to his wife and kids. He thought he was going to die. Thankfully he survived, but his letter is in the museum for all to see, and I'm so glad it was included.
It is beautiful, jarring, inspirational, and emotional. It got me thinking about what I would write in that situation. It also made me think why we don't articulate these kinds of thoughts to the people we love while we have the opportunity to do so (e.g. not waiting until we are in an elevator shaft filling with smoke, thinking we're going to die).
Here it is:
To my family, from Dad
12:40PM smoking elevator 66, 2/26/93
A few thoughts if I am fated to leave you now.
I love you very much. Be good people. Do wonderful things in your life.
Barbara – I've always loved you, and showed you as much as I could.
Debbie – my beautiful girl, with wonderful bear hugs and kisses. Do good.
Jeff – What a terrific person, stay well, make good decisions, help people.
Doug – My boy. Discover secrets to cure lots of the world's problems.
I'm so proud of my children – they're each so wonderful.
I love and cherish – ideas, people, Cooper Union (Alumnus of the Year!!), my work, my family, doing the best I could. Nothing more to say.
12:59 very smoky
It is a simple letter, but I love the themes he wrote about:
"Be good people."
"Do wonderful things."
"Cure lots of the world's problems."
I also love that beyond his family, the first things that came to mind when he thought about things he loved were ideas, people, his alma mater, and doing the best he could.
So in the aftermath of a seemingly never-ending political season, where we still have to sit and watch negative messages that are intended to divide us, I like to focus instead on the wise words of someone forced to maximize what little time he had left on this earth. This is what is important. Whether you are black, white, or purple, straight or gay, native-born or an immigrant, everyone can relate to this letter. When you strip everything else away, we want our families to know we loved them and to inspire them to do good in the world.
After you read it, please tell the people in your life what they mean to you, and do it as if you were in an elevator shaft filling with smoke and you thought you weren't going to make it.