Sept. 11 up close and personal

In the same way that many remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated almost 40 years ago, Americans today will undoubtedly always remember where they were on Sept. 11. Chad Priest remembers it clearly.

After terrorists attacked America, Priest was one of many that day called to action.

Priest, 27, a clinical nurse in the Air Force, is stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, Md. He works at the Family Practice Clinic located at Malcolm Grow Medical Center on the base.

In addition to direct clinical work with patients and triage work, Priest is in charge of the prevention program that teaches people to recognize domestic violence. But he claims to be first and foremost an officer of the military.

It was that fateful Tuesday when Priest, who hails from Indianapolis, was teaching a domestic violence prevention class on base with his girlfriend, Caitlin Finnegan. Finnegan, 27, is no stranger to an emergency.

She has worked as a crisis counselor for seven years at My Sister’s Place, a shelter for battered women and their children in Washington, D.C. As the two taught the class, they learned by word of mouth of the terrorist attacks.

Not long after, Priest was one of many shuttled by ambulance-bus to the Pentagon to assist the victims.

Finnegan, a civilian, remained at the base, ready to help out in any way she could. It was a day when civilians were not separated from the military, when all Americans came together as one. As she waited, Finnegan remembers being torn between an incredible sense of pride for Priest, and a great deal of fear in what was occurring.

Priest was at the Pentagon that day for approximately 10 hours. And he witnessed patriotism before even arriving at his destination. As his crew passed traffic, cars stopped and they saw people staring in awe and waving flags before they even arrived at the site. Priest wondered where they got the flags.

Indeed, citizens wasted no time in supporting their wounded nation.

At the Pentagon, Priest felt frustrated that there was not much he could do. Not a day of rescues, it was heartbreaking and very hard to respond to people who had already died. “There’s nothing heroic about [what I did at] the Pentagon disaster,” said Priest.

“What was heroic were the people who went back into the buildings [here and in New York] and pulled their buddies out. These are civil servants and average joes. The real heroes of that day are the people who watched their friends die and the guys who are taking care of business miles from home,” Priest said, adding that he’s doing his part, keeping the military healthy.

His patients are either active duty or veterans who served their country in Korea, Vietnam or in one of two world wars, sacrificing much more than Priest says he has. “We take care of the bravest patients in the world They’ve put their lives on the line defending the way we live,” said Priest, pleased that he is able to see democracy in action.

But Priest feels that the initial collective feeling of patriotism after Sept. 11 may be starting to wear off for citizens. “America has a short memory,” he said, hoping that as anniversaries of Sept. 11 pass, America will remember those we’ve lost and those who have sacrificed.

Before joining the military, Priest attended Indiana University, as well as American University. He studies law at George Washington University in the evenings, eventually planning to become a lawyer. He also plans to marry Finnegan in a June 2003 wedding.

Priest has become more aware of what is going on around him, though he admits his life has not changed a lot.

If he had children, he would instill in them an appreciation for living in America. Finnegan agreed, noting that with privilege comes responsibility.

“Whatever gift you have, you need to give back tenfold,” she added, realizing that to live in America is a blessing.

When asked what being an American means to him, Priest warned, “Don’t mess with us,” in regard to the military, but also as everyday U.S. citizens. “Look at the way the nation has come together. It’s not just about attacking and responding, but about helping our own.” He spoke proudly of the nation that he said “responded brilliantly” to the attacks.

Though he is not afraid of future attacks, he says he is not naive — that he is 100 percent sure they will occur.

Crediting one of his favorite authors, Gavin DeBecker, Priest spoke of fear, noting that when used inappropriately, is a futile and wasteful, inefficient emotion.

Priest claims not to have a fatalistic attitude in regard to terrorists. “We’ll just go out there and try to stop them before they get us and hopefully be a beacon to the rest of the world — not about how quickly we can kill other people — but be a beacon for what we are,” said Priest with pride, “which is an amazing, vibrant, diverse nation that values independence and freedom That’s America.”

Staff writer Tracy Bell can be reached at (703) 878-8057.

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