If West Michigan communities could take away one sentiment from this weekend’s healing field, it would be that 10 years later, the nation is still united by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As the monumental anniversary approached, the question “How has America changed since 9/11?” has been posed by many.
While airport security is an obvious response, for Grand Rapids man Jay Spencer, the answer lies “in our hearts.”
“Just the pain and the raw emotion attached to the day, it never fades,” he said, as his eyes welled up with tears and his voice shook.
Standing among 3,200 flags, blowing in the wind and gesturing around him Spencer continued, “What this represents, the names, the stories, all the people here today that are deeply affected — 9/11 reminded us we are all Americans. … I always thought I was patriotic, but (the attacks) made me comprehend what that (patriotism) means. My patriotic views were enhanced and enlightened.”
Spencer was not alone.
Bonita Guernsey of Sheridan said she ventured to the Cannonsburg Ski Area memorial because “being an American is sharing in everyone’s lives and what they have to go through.
“It’s about feeling each other’s tragedy and lifting each other up,” she said.
Guernsey also had tears streaming down her cheeks as she read the biographies of 9/11’s fallen heroes.
Ceremonies bring tears
Emotions were high throughout the weekend, according to organizers. However, Sunday’s events brought the greatest number of people and tears.
Many families even ventured to Cannon Township, from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other communities where they were directly impacted by the attacks.
Rockford Mayor Steve Jazwiec told how he had the privilege of walking with a couple from New Jersey who traveled to West Michigan to sponsor their loved one’s flag. Craig Silverstein, 41, died in the terrorist attacks; he adored his wife and two children, 4 and 5 at the time.
“We found his flag and tied a yellow ribbon around it,” Jazwiec said during a tribute hosted by the Rockford American Legion Sunday. “I hope you all can experience a victim’s story or a memory as I was able to yesterday.”
History lesson for youth
Many in attendance were experiencing the tragedy of 9/11 for the first time. The 20-and-younger crowd wandered the rows of flags, paying particular attention to the ages of the victims.
Heldon Palmer of Rockford said his seven-year-old daughter was told the flags were there because 10 years ago, a lot of people died. But the gravity of the day was difficult for her to grasp, he said.
“She’s running around looking for people that are close to our ages,” he added.
Nine-year-old Richard Gendrey thought the healing field was “a cool thing to do” for all of the victims.
He said the biographies on the flags marked with blue and red ribbons, for police and firefighters, respectively, were his favorites. He added he might like to become a policeman or fireman someday.
Gendrey’s aunt, Tammy Baughn of Cedar Springs, believes the biographies made it easier for children to understand the magnitude of what happened on 9/11.
“It makes it more personal,” she said.
Josh Weiland, 18, Emily Mcafee, 19, and Kaela Bouwkamp, 19, all students at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, explained they were in the fourth grade when 9/11 occurred and didn’t fully comprehend the attacks themselves until high school.
“When (the terrorist attacks) started showing up in our textbooks, I think that’s when I finally really grasped that I had lived through that,” Bouwkamp said, adding she knew something traumatic had happened and that people had died but the number was difficult for her to understand. “Reading the stories really makes the tragedy come alive. This makes it more real.”
She said when she saw the images of the Twin Towers at nine years old, she more or less thought she was witnessing a typical building fire. Bouwkamp recalls also hearing about a plane crashing into a field, but said she did not realize until years later Flight 93’s connection to 9/11 or that the passengers chose to fight back against the terrorists.
“I feel like the towers were more of the focus and were always in the media,” she said.
Weiland added he and his friends had never heard of the Pentagon in the fourth grade.
“We knew it was a shape and that was it,” he said. “It took until middle school or high school for me to understand the acts were deliberate.”
The college students agreed the field was more overwhelming than they anticipated it would be.
Liz Ferguson of Rockford taught her young daughter, Grace, various lessons while walking through the flags Sunday.
“We’ve tried to tell Grace that the men who did this had evil in their hearts and that men like them continue to need our prayers,” she said. “But the biggest thing we’ve tried to teach her is not to be afraid. … Because if we live in fear, then who really wins?”
The West Michigan Healing Field will remain open to the public until 3 p.m. Tuesday.