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Grand Haven honors 9/11 victims, responders

Krystle Wagner • Sep 12, 2018 at 7:00 AM

West Michigan residents stood in silence with their hands over their hearts as veterans and first responders saluted the American flag being lowered to half-staff Tuesday morning.

The service held at the American Legion Charles A. Conklin Post 28 on Patriot Day honored the Americans who lost their lives during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93, and the many first responders who saved lives. The ceremony also honored Americans who died while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Brian Howard, the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Grand Haven Sector Field Office, recalled learning about the 9/11 attacks during his freshman art class. Howard said he remembered the sound of the U.S. Air Force fighter jets patrolling the skies over Camp David and the absence of other planes in the sky the following days.

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, Howard and his dad spoke about the events of the day. One piece of the conversation that stood out, Howard said, was his father telling him to not be afraid because men and women in the armed forces were protecting America.

Howard recalled the comments by Fred Rogers, known as public television’s Mr. Rogers, about his own mother telling him to look for helpers when he saw scary things. Although “great evil” was done on 9/11, Howard said that courage and selflessness won the day if people look for the helpers.

“As I look back on the images that captured and help us remember what happened 17 years ago, I’m always drawn to look for the helpers,” he said.

RELATED: See the “Patriot Day” photo gallery for more photos from the ceremony.

American Legion Auxiliary Unit 28 2nd Vice President Melanie Riekels said the day “became a point of reflection.” She said her son-in-law lost two shipmates at the Pentagon.

“We all have negative feelings toward those that committed this massacre, so we should continue with the unity that’s brought,” Riekels said. “The hugs and the support among strangers, the humanitarian work, the tears of support for everyone’s pain. Let us become one family.

“We can’t change what happened Sept. 11, 2001, but we can change tomorrow,” she added. “Through education and understanding, we can make tomorrow a better day.”

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke said memorial events such as the one in Grand Haven are important to keep people connected to the past so they don’t forget what happened, and to let families of victims know the “country mourns with them.”

Hawke said first responders don’t think and act like others, and what they see and experience on duty gives them a different set of filters to view things. He said they usually have a few seconds to make a decision and take action, just as first responders did 17 years ago.

“They ran toward the danger, toward the flames and smoke, and they didn’t think about it,” Hawke said. “They just did it because of their commitment to the job and their fellow human beings. They did it because of their heartfelt and unbroken commitment to duty.”

Hawke said they will always answer the call and be there for the community.

Thanking veterans and first responders for their service, Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb said we also must remember the innocent people who lost their lives on 9/11. She said it would be an injustice to forget them, as well as the first responders, the people who sifted through the wreckage, the airline crews who were hijacked and the passengers who fought back.

When the terrorists attacked 17 years ago, they took more than 3,000 lives, noted American Legion Post 28 1st Vice Cmdr. Janet Fonger.

“Quite simply, Sept. 11, 2001, wounded our nation in a way we had not known since the shock of Pearl Harbor,” she said. “In bringing down the World Trade Center, damaging the Pentagon and downing an airliner in a Pennsylvania field, the day ranks as the most devastating in our nation’s history.”

Fonger said the individuals who supported the attacks hoped to create fear and didn’t believe Americans would triumph, but people should know the military is focused on securing liberty and tracking down terrorists.

Fonger noted the Gold and Blue Star Memorials recently added near Waterfront Stadium tell people that Tri-Cities-area residents support the men and women in uniform.

“Members of the American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion urge you to call to mind today and every day the sacrifices made in the past and the sacrifices that will be made in the future of our first responders and our armed forces,” she said.

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