Ten days after Sept. 11, 2001, a tall, quiet woman with inquiring eyes and curly brown hair mashed under her Kevlar helmet walked the perimeter of ground zero asking firemen, policemen, military members and others, “How can I help you?”
Then-Capt. Melanie Howard was deployed out of Stratton National Guard Base, Scotia, N.Y,. as a 24-hour on-call mental health professional at crumbled remains of the twin towers. Her mission was to provide basic care and comfort for all the ground zero workers.
“I was there to listen to the workers, help them ‘diffuse,’ to tell their story – they all wanted to open up about the things they’d seen,” said Major Howard, who is currently serving for 120 days as a mental health nurse at 435th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility.
Wearing a respirator and gloves, Major Howard stumbled through ash and smoke, and dodged flying debris during her night shifts, never faltering when it came to educating workers on post-traumatic stress disorder, telling them the stress they were feeling was normal.
“The entire time I worked, the smoke was terrible,” she said. “I’ll never forget the smell … my eyes burned … and all the time the fire (at ground zero) was burning, burning, burning.”
Despite the somber task of the workers, Major Howard said she noticed hope welling up among the devastation.
“I was touched by the fortitude, the dedication of all the workers,” she said. “They never looked at it as a ‘recovery’ mission, they still held out hope, and continued on their ‘rescue’ mission.”
Major Howard said that her own mission could be difficult at times, helping others with their emotions while grappling with her own.
“I never expected to see the sheer devastation, the life lost,” said the Sage College graduate. “I couldn’t disconnect myself from it; there’s no way I couldn’t feel for these people.”
The nurse found what joy she could in her 17-plus hour shifts, like the woman who came around at 2 a.m. every morning with cookies for the workers.
“She engaged us in conversation … that and humor relieved some of the stress,” she said.
Major Howard says she sees many similarities between the workers at ground zero and the wounded coming in through the CASF.
“These returning warriors have a lot of questions about what they’re feeling,” she said. “It’s the same thing, people trying to cope with extreme stressors. I’m engaging them, establishing trust, validating their feelings but never saying ‘you shouldn’t feel that way.’”
Major Howard, a self-described introvert, said when it came to dealing with workers or warriors, her shy tendencies were pushed aside.
I had to show them verbally and through your body language, that “I’m going to spend time with you,” she said.
Except for the irritating soot in her nose in New York, she said there’s no difference in the way she felt at the end of her shifts; she just hoped she had helped a few people.
“I’ll forever remember and cherish my interactions with all these true heroes,” she said.