13 Years Later
September 10, 2014
I grew up in New Jersey, not far from New York City. I graduated from high school in June of 2001. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I wasn’t ready for college. Then, the towers fell.
A few people from my neighborhood never came home that day. Posters of “missing” family members, friends and neighbors went up around the city in every subway station. An acrid smell hung in the air and news of the recovery efforts continued day and night. It was impossible to escape what had happened.
I knew I had to step up to do something to defend my city and my country, so two weeks after 9/11 I went down to the recruiter’s office in Times Square. I wasn’t alone. The line of men and women to see a recruiter was wrapped around the building.
I didn’t leave for basic training until that December, but I remember watching the news and seeing soldiers mobilize and deploy around the world. I remember watching soldiers parachute into Afghanistan for the first time and thinking to myself that I wanted to be a part of it all.
I served for four years in the United States Air Force, and deployed twice to The Middle East. I was in Security Forces, which meant ensuring the safety and protection of personnel and assets of the United States. While stationed in Kuwait, we made frequent convoy runs to Baghdad. In Qatar, we helped support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by securing flights that transported equipment, supplies, troops as well as enemy prisoners. I learned a lot in those four years.
When it was time for me to transition out, I chose the closest career to what I had done in the military – police officer. Then, three months after graduating from the academy, I was in a car accident, and eighteen surgeries later, my career in law enforcement was over.
I had been dealt a hand of cards that I didn’t want to play. Following the accident, I was a veteran living on social security and battling a pain medication dependency. Something had to change. I met a veteran who was serving a fellowship with The Mission Continues. It sounded like an opportunity to get a fresh start. A week away from finding myself homeless, I moved out to Denver and soon after started my fellowship.
Playing sports was an important part of my life as a kid, so I chose to volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver. I coached multiple athletic teams and increased attendance at the club. I introduced kids to new sports and provided a dependable and safe outlet for them.
I now lead a team of veterans in Denver through a Mission Continues Service Platoon. Homelessness is a major problem here. On any given day, the two soup kitchens down the street from me have lines that extend outside the building and around the corner. I was once close to joining that line. Veterans have a role to play to get them off the street and into transitional housing. I’m excited to lead that effort.
There was a point in my life when I thought losing my job as a police officer was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was supposed to be my career, and an opportunity to continue serving my country. The truth is it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to take a hard look at where I wanted to be in my life.
I’ve come a long way since swearing an oath to protect and defend our nation in Times Square in the weeks after 9/11. I enlisted at 18, and in the span of four years travelled to the other side of the world, twice. Until then, I had only known how life was like growing up raised by a firefighter in New Jersey. I learned how to walk again in the weeks and months following my car accident. I learned that resiliency is hard work. I wish I could say that serving my community is an entirely selfless act, but I get as much out of it as I put in. It gets me out of the house each day and focused on the needs of others. When I moved out to Denver, I also started school again. I’ll graduate with a degree in renewable energy this December.
Many of the kids I worked with during my fellowship come from broken homes, and to no fault of their own have been dealt their own crummy hand of cards. They’re handed reasons every day to give up, but they don’t. Folks in my hometown were given a reason to give up thirteen years ago too, but they didn’t. So, I don’t either.
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Jeff Wietry is a veteran of the United States Air Force, an alumni of The Mission Continues Fellowship Program, and now a leader of 1st Platoon Denver, a team of veterans helping to combat homelessness in the Denver area.