I’d like to add to Women’s Voices’ 9/11 remembrance this story of healing. All of us over 40 have experienced some natural disaster, together with personal catastrophes. It is all too easy to retreat inside and ruminate on our wounds, and to seek support or professional help to heal. That’s fine as far as it goes, but often, it does not go far enough. There is another way. That is by turning outward, and through compassion for others in the throes of loss, employing our skills and experience to help them through a dark passage.

I met Lt. Bill Keegan at Ground Zero, where I spent a good deal of time while researching and writing a book about the families, cops and firefighters who lost the greatest number of loved ones when the Towers went down: “Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage From Trauma to Hope.” He and the men and women on his team taught me a great deal about how to turn trauma into hope.

                                                                        –Gail Sheehy

Irene has reminded us that when hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes or fires unleash fickle fury, no man or woman is an island.

Let’s also remember what some of the bravest Americans did in the aftermath of another national trauma, on 9/11, and how it helped them heal emotionally and spiritually.

Bill Keegan is one of my heroes. A lieutenant with the Port Authority police, he stood on the vast crematorium at the World Trade Center on the night of Sept. 12, unable to think straight. He knew some of his ablest officers and best friends were lost in the voids below. How could he command men whose brothers and fathers were buried in there?

But when he saw cops running up on top of a seven-story mountain of fiery ruins to work with their hands, he knew what to do. “Awright, we’re gonna start small,” he shouted to men near him. “Clear this one little area. Get a board in here for a desk. Get bulldozers in here. Let’s just start.”

He set up a leadership tree with 300-400 volunteers, active and retired cops, women with staff jobs at Port Authority, and construction workers. His team bonded. They worked in shifts, every night, for the next nine months. I knew him as the beloved night commander of Ground Zero.

Only when it was all over did the workers begin falling apart. Money was not enough; church was not enough; drugs and drink didn’t help grief and guilt. Two years after their service on 9/11, Keegan knew he and his team all needed to get outside themselves.

“Hey, we may be the most experienced people dealing with catastrophic events. Why don’t we get together and do it again, on a voluntary basis?”

Fifty men who had worked on the pile with him jumped at the chance. They missed the camaraderie, the humor, the sense of humanity they had felt in using their skills to comfort others.

That core group trucked down to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I have 50 people here who want to help rebuild the Ninth Ward so people can be back in their homes for Christmas,” Keegan told local authorities. Working with St. Bernard Parish, his team rebuilt 12 homes in six days.

Keegan found funding to launch a non-profit, H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 (Healing Emergency Aid Response Team). Since Katrina, H.E.A.R.T.’s 300 volunteers have responded 26 times to other disasters: the Gulf Coast, Nashville, Haiti. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, they have been all over Hoboken, Newark and Hudson County, N.J. They have learned a lesson that any one of us can follow.

We’re all now struggling against a man-made economic disaster. The longer people are unemployed, the less likely they are to continue looking for work. One way to push back against despair is to volunteer to help others in your community whose homes or businesses have been destroyed. It can be extremely empowering. You learn new skills. And we could all use some hands-on experience in drying out basements. Irene will surely have a sister.

Previously posted at USA Today.

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