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Whidbey Island was changed Sept. 11, 2001

Navy Chaplain Paul Tremblay, above, counsels and ministers to 1,800 servicemembers of Carrier Air Wing 2. - Christine Smith
Navy Chaplain Paul Tremblay, above, counsels and ministers to 1,800 servicemembers of Carrier Air Wing 2.
— image credit: Christine Smith

There’s a new definition of normal in America since Sept. 11, 2001.

That seems to be the overwhelming theme among military personnel and civilians alike on Whidbey Island, as they have spent the past year readjusting their sense of values, security and priorities. Nothing will be the same as it was on Sept. 10 of last year, Americans forever changed by a bunch of rogue terrorists who accomplished the unspeakable.

Thousands died, countless more injured physically and emotionally, when al-Qaida terrorists used hijacked American passenger jets as missiles to attack buildings in New York and Washington, D.C. One attempt was thwarted by a group of civilian passengers who fought against the hijackers, forcing the plane to crash in a field in Pennsylvania instead of an unknown target likely in the D.C. area.

The aftershocks quickly rippled throughout the nation. While the attacks on the United States occurred about 3,000 miles from Whidbey Island, people here are affected in many ways.

The military community on Whidbey Island seems to be the most impacted of all by the heightened threat of terrorism. Their very way of life, even the most basic aspects such as living at home with their families, is centered on world conditions.

Lt. Paul Tremblay is a U.S. Navy Prostestant chaplain who knows a thing or two about how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 affected the lives of military members. Tremblay is the chaplain assigned to Carrier Air Wing 2, through which he ministers and counsels to about 1,800 active-duty Navy personnel from eight aircraft squadrons stationed at Whidbey Island, Lemoore, Calif., San Diego, Calif, and Virginia Beach, Va. All eight squadrons gather for deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation. That’s where Tremblay and the wing were located last September.

Watching terror from a carrier

“It was surreal,” Tremblay said recently. “Here we are sitting on the carrier, watching CNN live and not knowing what to think of it. We didn’t know … what the verdict was for us.”

Tremblay spent the rest of the day of Sept. 11, 2001 checking on his people at 140 different work centers on the ship. “That whole day I spent seeing how everyone was doing,” Tremblay said.

The Constellation was about to pull into port in San Diego later that week, returning from a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, and the crew didn’t know whether they would be sent right back out.

“Actually, they were ready to go back out in light of what had transpired in New York and at the Pentagon,” Tremblay said of the crew, which he described as having “resolve and fortitude.” “They were fired up. When it hits that close to home it becomes more real and personal to them,” he said.

Being a man of God and a Navy officer go hand-in-hand for Tremblay. He sees no conflict between the two roles.

“God is merciful. God is gracious. But, He’s also just, and He also executes judgment on evildoers,” Tremblay said. “There’s established laws that should be adhered to and if they’re not adhered to then government is supposed to exist to right the wrong and, in this case, that’s what America is trying to do is eradicate terrorism and make it a sane and peacable world for anyone who wants to live in it.”

For Tremblay, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were not much of a surprise.

“I don’t know that I’ve changed all that substantially. It was almost inevitable that an event like this was going to occur. It’s an awakening...a lot of people thought we were immune to this kind of activity,” he said.

He also said that the activities of the past year have helped to reaffirm that he is on the right path.

“It reinforced to me that as a chaplain, what I’m doing is of vital importance. As these people come face to face with their mortality...a lot of times it gets them thinking in terms of eternity and of the afterlife,” Tremblay said.

Some of the carrier wing turned back toward their faith, he said, and some found faith for the first time.

Importantly, no matter what, Tremblay counsels the sailors under his care, and reassures them in their roles.

“When people come into my office I emphasize to them that what they’re doing is commendable and honorable,” Tremblay said.

Reservists answer the call

Mary Houser and David Staelgraeve were going about their business on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, far away from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Houser, an author relations manager with “Focus on the Family,” a ministry, was at home in Colorado with her husband and teenaged son. Her older daughter has a family of her own and lives in Arizona.

Staelgraeve busied himself at home in Minnesota as a full-time stay-at-home dad to his 15-month-old daughter, at the same time just three weeks away from completing his masters’ degree.

Within days the two reservists were called to active duty, receiving their assignments to the security department at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Neither was surprised.

“I knew pretty well it was going to happen when I saw what was going on that morning,” Houser said.

Houser was recalled to active duty Sept. 14, which caused change to ripple throughout her personal life.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been away from my son,” Houser said. “My husband was active duty Navy for 24 years. I was always the one that stayed home.”

Additionally, Houser left a job she really likes, and her employer is required to hold that job for her.

“I had three days’ notice to let my boss know that I’d be gone for a year or two years,” Houser said.

Staelgraeve faced challenges of his own, preparing his wife and daughter to live without him for at least a year.

“I was called on a Saturday and they said I was leaving at seven o’clock Wednesday morning. As a stay-at-home dad, we had to find daycare in two days,” he said. “I had to drop out of the last trimester of grad school. I was almost finished.”

Staelgraeve goes home next month, while Houser will remain on duty here for another year.

Despite the personal sacrifices, each says they are committed to defending America and are honored to serve.

“I think it’s really important,” Houser said. “I think there’s a lot that really still needs to be done, and I want to be a part of it.”

“I like what I’m doing,” Staelgraeve said. “I’m really proud to be serving my country.”

While the two security officers look forward to eventually going back to their former way of life, both say Americans now live in a different world than prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

“Normal is un-normal right now. And, if there is such a thing as normal, it’s totally different,” Staelgraeve said.

“There’s the potential for a lot of bad things to happen in the very near future,” Houser said. “Ninety-percent of them we’re not going to have any control over. There’s some people who are very angry with our way of life. They don’t agree with it...and they’re not opposed to demonstrating their anger in very violent ways.”

Volunteering when he didn’t have to

U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Paul Mudge sat in a P3 on the flightline at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station for four hours last Sept. 11. The entire crew was supposed to complete a routine training mission that morning, but the terrorist attacks changed their plans. Instead, they sat in the parked aircraft, one of the radios tuned to an AM news station, listening to events unfold.

VP-1, the squadron to which Mudge was assigned, received awful news that day. A well-liked Lieutenant Commander who had recently transferred from VP-1 to the Pentagon had perished when a hijacked plane slammed into the U.S. military headquarters.

“Later that day, on Sept. 11, we learned that Cmdr. Donovan...was killed in the Pentagon,” Mudge said. “He was a well-liked pilot. Everybody liked flying with him. A real good instructor, too.”

Shortly after Sept. 11 Mudge transferred from VP-1 to a shore-duty assignment with Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10. In his new job, Mudge would not be required to deploy anywhere. Then, he heard that VP-1 was about to deploy and the squadron was not fully manned.

“They were short-handed, so I volunteered to go,” Mudge said.

He deployed with VP-1 once again to the Persian Gulf, where the squadron flew missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the war against terrorism.

“I think...one of the influencing factors was how we all felt that day of Sept. 11. At that point I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do whatever is necessary,’ and I think Commander Donovan would have done the same thing,” Mudge said.

During one of the missions the crew flew a flag, which was later embroidered with the date of the mission. It will be presented to Donovan’s wife and children.

While Mudge says he hasn’t changed much over the past year — he was always extremely patriotic — the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fallen Cmdr. Donovan, have perhaps shaped his life.

“I’d been kind of teeter-tottering what my career choice was going to be,” Mudge, 26, said of his pre-Sept. 11 thinking. “I’m going to start up college and put in a commissioning packet and hopefully come back to this community as a pilot and fly.”

Help is available on Navy base

The Community Services department, formerly called Fleet and Family Support Center, at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, answered the call of duty in response to Sept. 11, 2001, and continue to do so every day.

The emotional and psychological effects of the tragedy on military personnel and family members didn’t just go away overnight. In fact, some of the challenges didn’t even begin to surface until weeks or months after the event.

“What I’ve been focusing on is stress management and ways to be in tune with (someone’s) own anxiety,” said Dr. Jane Beshore, a department psychologist. “We all have it and we’re all doing the best we can to rise to the occasion.”

Beshore said that initially most people tried “to do what they can and be brave.” But the adrenaline rush, and increased tension and anxiety, has to give way at some point. The body gets tired.

“People (felt) more stresses and that comes out in other ways,” Beshore said. She saw clients with sleep distrubances, tension headaches, anger outbursts or thoughtless verbal comments.

Beshore said she helps people recognize their stresses and to deal with them openly and honestly, finding ways to manage stress and to communicate effectively with spouses and workmates.

Even today, Beshore says people are still dealing with the anxiety caused by the attacks one year ago.

“I think there’s more anxiety about it in general, from the people that are going (on deployment) and the spouses,” she said.

One way to ease the anxiety about upcoming deployments in these uncertain times is through education and preparation, says Susie Hay, the department’s Regional Deployment Education Specalist.

Hay works with groups of servicemembers or spouses to provide information to ease such transitions. She also answers to specific requests from squadrons for information.

“I did find that after 9-11, especially in October, the amount of presentations that I gave more than doubled. And,...a serious increase in requests for certain information,” Hay said.

A number of sqadrons were called to deploy overseas earlier than scheduled, and Hay was on hand to help military members and their families deal with the sudden change, especially in such a scary situation.

“The goal is to normalize their feelings and to have them look at all these areas that are going to come up, so they expect them (as normal),” Hay said.

Beshore said it is important for people to remember “what (they) do have control over,” as well as seek out social support. Additionally, people should live “healthfully,” taking care of their bodies, to help reduce the effects of stress and anxiety.

“We hope that people will know we’re there and we really want to extend ourselves to them,” Beshore said.

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