September 11 Call to Service: Help Pass Health Benefits for 9/11 Responders and Veterans

The Statue of Liberty stands as smoke billows from the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept 11, 2001 after terrorist
The Statue of Liberty stands as smoke billows from the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept 11, 2001 after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin 110-story towers. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)

Like millions of Americans, I will never forget the second plane banking sideways before hitting the tower, crushing all hope that the first September 11 crash was an accident.

Whatever our stories - wherever we were on September 11, 2001 - our 9/11 generation remembers the horrific moment when the attacks were seared into the American psyche.

For me it was working on Capitol Hill going over the schedule when a staffer said "turn on the TV -- a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!" We thought/hoped/prayed it could be an accident ... but that suspension of belief only lasted 'til the second plane's wings banked. Ice cold dread froze my spine, like the moment I once knew I was about to get mugged and had no escape -- only magnified exponentially.

I filed out of the Cannon House Office Building with staff and our bosses to a Members of Congress' briefing at the Capitol Police HQ. Saw smoke rising from the Pentagon. Walked across the Capitol esplanade, eyes blinking from deceptively bright sunshine reflecting off military vehicles... thinking, "we are at war."

By the time we got to Capitol Police HQ briefing, the first tower had fallen. People were stunned: numb yet operational trying to find facts. We were told a plane was coming for the Capitol. All but chiefs of staff were sent home and members got the terrible details about the carnage. Initial estimates said 40,000 people could be killed at #WTC -- those first responders who ran in while others ran out saved thousands of lives.

Soon we learned the Pentagon facts and the Flight 93 tragedy. Details were contradictory as we tried to find out the fate of many constituents. By lunchtime a harrowing, horrifying reality was setting in. Thousands were killed, millions were terrified and there was no end in sight.

By mid-afternoon I finally caught up with my mom (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi) who'd been in a series of briefings. For a minute, I was a relieved kid in her arms.

Then we were back to work. At an ad hoc House Democratic Caucus meeting, people were stunned, angry and defiant, talking about sending a message that terrorists did not win. The military and police were wary of having Congress return to the Capitol since more attacks were possible -- but members insisted on a show of unity.

By the early evening of September 11, members of Congress, senators, staff, and families convened with anger, caring and courage at the Capitol. We took heart from vigils around the world, and headed to ours with leaders, staffers, and press back across the Capitol esplanade. Already concrete barriers, military vehicles, and security unseen since the 2001 inauguration were set up around the Capitol, some permanently.

By dusk on hundreds joined defiant, unified vigil of leaders on the Capitol steps singing "God Bless America."

Now 14 years later the heroes of 9/11 - those who stood up and said "send me" - up the stairs into the World Trade Center towers to save thousands who were rushing out; over to Ground Zero to work recovering bodies from the rubble; and/or into the military and National Guard - have called us to service: our first responders and veterans need the healthcare they have earned.

According to the Coalition to Help Injured and Dying 9/11 Responders and Survivors was created by Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act, Inc., "there are over 33,000 9/11 responders and survivors that have at least one injury from 9/11, including thousands who have multiple, chronic and disabling illnesses from their exposures to the toxins at Ground Zero. So far, over 3,700 have been diagnosed with cancer from their 9/11 exposures. Sadly, thousands more cases are expected."

Meanwhile, our nation's veterans - including those who volunteered after the 9/11 attacks - are deeply concerned about the continued VA backlog in health claims, the epidemic of suicides, and the need to lift the "sequestration" budget caps that impact medical care, new facilities and military cemeteries.

So today as we mourn the fallen let us work for the living with a simple act of service: call your Member of Congress and Senators at 202-225-3121 and contact your presidential candidates to urge them all to fight for our emergency responders injured and dying because they answered our call on 9/11 and urge them to fight for a budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs that will provide our veterans the benefits they have earned.