Firefighters Visit Walter Reed, Bethesda, Pentagon
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2005 They came to express their gratitude and found themselves the recipients of the same.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld thanks Sal Cassano, chief of operations for the New York Fire Department, after Cassano and a group of firefighters toured the Pentagon. The group stopped at the Pentagon in between meeting troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie Thurlby, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
After visiting injured servicemembers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center today, 17 current and former firefighters toured the Pentagon, including the Sept. 11, 2001, crash site. As the tour concluded with lunch, they received handshakes and thanks from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
The group, 10 from the New York Fire Department, four from the Arlington (Va.) Fire Department and three from the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, were led by Pete Verga, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. All had a strong connection to Sept. 11, 2001.
"You have no idea how much people in this department appreciate you and what you've done," Rumsfeld said. "We don't have a chance to see you or thank you as much as we'd like to. We all feel a great affinity and linkage to you, and to what you've done in the past, and to what you're doing now. Thank you so much."
The group spent the morning visiting with servicemembers at Walter Reed Army and thanking them for their service. According to John Vigiano, a former captain with Ladder 176 in New York City and on his second trip to visit the troops in the area, the firefighters had the tables turned on them.
"I came here both times to thank them," he said. "I just thank them. It's hard for them to understand, but more good came out of 9/11 than bad."
Wolfowitz told the group that their visits to the troops were invaluable. Talking to those who responded to the terrorist attacks, both in New York and at the Pentagon, helps them make sense of it all, he said.
"What so many of you are doing in sharing your loss ... sharing that sense with other people, and most of all helping people like these great wounded soldiers understand how grateful the country is to them, it is enormously powerful," Wolfowitz said. "It is medically certified to be effective. It really matters to them to know that people are paying attention to them. Thanks for all you've done."
Vigiano, who organized the trip for the New York group, was retired at the time of the attacks, but his son, Joseph, was a New York police officer and his other son, John, was a New York firefighter. They both lost their lives that day.
"I don't like Osama bin Laden," he said, "but I wouldn't wish this on him."
While Vigiano doesn't have family members fighting overseas in the war on terror, he said a lot of his sons' friends are serving. In June 2003, the former Marine had the opportunity to visit troops in Iraq.
"I went there to say thank you," Vigiano said. "The kids were thanking me. They're amazing. They were truly, truly amazing, and they still are."
Sal Cassano, chief of operations for the New York Fire Department, also came to thank the troops. He was the citywide tour commander on Sept. 11. His impression after visiting Walter Reed was a positive one.
"It was just unbelievably uplifting to see such fine young men and women sacrificing their lives for country, the United States of America, and not one complaint about doing that," he said. "I was involved in the first day of this war at the World Trade Center, and our fire department was beaten up pretty badly that day. The president made a vow to us that he would get revenge and take care of business, and he certainly has.
"The people that we saw at Walter Reed are a testament to that," he continued. "They continue this battle until we weed out the terrorists and live in a world that's a good place to live."
Cassano served in the Army from 1965 to 1967 and was deployed to Vietnam for a year of that service. He said that the climate and enemy are different now from what they were in Vietnam, and that he sees a lot more support from the people now than back then.
"At least I know that we're here to ensure that that doesn't happen to the people that are coming back," Cassano said. "I think that we need to show our support."
His family -- he has five children ranging in age from 15 to 35 -- has done just that. The family has adopted a soldier who receives correspondence and care packages from them.
Capt. David Lange with Fairfax County joked that he was just glad he wasn't the one who had to carry the massive flag up the ladder after the Pentagon attack. Lange had not been back to the Pentagon since Sept. 12, 2001, when, as the person in charge of the crew working on the roof, he helped hang the flag over the side of the building.
"I kind of call it my 15 minutes of fame on a bad day," he said.
As lunch ended and the Pentagon officials headed back to their offices, the group set out for the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md., to thank some more servicemembers before heading back home.