9/11 hero strives to keep lessons alive
September 8, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 6, 2011) -- After 10 years, the nightmares are not as frequent.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Braman seldom wakes up covered with perspiration anymore. But he said that traumatic stress still overcomes him sometimes when telling the story of Sept.11 at the Pentagon.
"The smell of death -- it never leaves you," Braman said.
Braman was a cook at the Pentagon who ran into the fire to rescue victims after terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building. The former Airborne Ranger then spent about 60 straight hours digging through the smoldering ruins as volunteer noncommissioned officer in charge of the initial response and recovery team.
"I didn't realize I was there that long," Braman said, explaining that shifts of recovery workers came and left, but he stayed "jacked on adrenaline." On the night of the third day, he was finally ordered to go home and rest.
The burnt clothes he wore that day are on display in the museum at Fort Lee, Va. The tips of his "corofram" shoes are melted from the hot ashes through which he trudged. And his chef uniform is covered with what he calls "bio matter" -- the blood and burnt tissue of victims he carried out of the collapsed building.
"A lot of the family members over the years would come to me for closure," Braman said, since he was often the one who found the remains of their loved one in the smoldering Pentagon.
He found them lying in ankle-deep water, around twisted steel and wires in the darkness. He carried them to the light, where a chaplain waited to perform last rights.
"Maybe it was a mirage," he said, "but it always appeared the light was shining on these men," he said, referring to the chaplains.
"I prayed (for strength) before going into the building," Braman said. He was checking over procurement paperwork for the General Officer Mess when the aircraft shook the building. He rushed to the scene of impact and went in to find survivors.
Only one of those he helped out lived to thank him. It was just Sheila Moody's second day on the job as an accountant at the Pentagon. She was one of only three survivors in her office, the accounting branch of Resource Services, Washington.
"There was a hand in the smoke," Moody said. "He reached and pulled me out."
She refers to Braman as her "guardian angel" who saved her life. She called him that for the first time when he came to visit her at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"I was able to shake his hand and give him a hug," she said. And a couple of months later she thanked him publicly on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
She and Braman have a special bond. They still keep in touch. Last year, he attended a church service in Maryland with her family and they appear together this week on a National Geographic television special.
"I plan to name my first grandson after him," Moody says of Braman, adding that her daughter is in agreement. "If not for him, I would not have lived to be a grandmother."
Braman has shared his memories of 9/11 with audiences at more than 160 events nationwide over the last decade -- from high schools to national conventions. He was a keynote speaker at an NRA National Convention. He threw out the first pitch at a Houston Astros game. He was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch for a ceremony before the 2002 Winter Games.
He was honored at a semi-pro hockey game in Atlantic City, N.J. He made numerous appearances with Tony "the Sarge" Schumacher at NHRA races. He visited the White House at least five times and met with President Bush.
"I've done so many things," he said. "It's been just this incredible journey."
It all began in October 2001 after a ceremony in which he was awarded the Purple Heart and Soldiers Medal.
Soon the media got wind of his story and he was asked to speak at events in West Virginia, California, Texas, Nevada and all over the East Coast. And even though the requests aren't as frequent anymore, he wants to continue telling the Army story.
With school students, he talks about patriotism. When talking to Soldiers, he tells them "rely on your partner next to you -- he's going to save your life someday." And he advocates cross-training, especially for noncommissioned officers, or NCOs.
"As an NCO, you need to know more than just your job," Braman said. In the Berlin Brigade, he trained with the infantry squad on his days off from cooking. In the Ranger Battalion, he was a member of the Combat Search and Rescue Team.
Braman also promotes vigilance against future terrorism.
After three days of working the Pentagon crash site, Braman said he reported back to the General Officer Mess exhausted. His fellow workers said he looked like "death." He was covered in soot. His eyes had a "thousand-mile stare." His face looked like it was covered by paint, but when peeled off, they realized it was blood. Blood that had formed from the radiant heat burns.
He had been breathing in toxic fumes with no protection except a paint-dust mask, and he was diagnosed with a rare airway disease, likened to "chemical pneumonia."
"They didn't know how to treat a guy who was exposed to jet fuel, asbestos, carbon monoxide and human matter," Braman said.
"There was a time when black would come out when I'd cough. The phlegm would come out in chunks -- almost like I had severe bronchitis."
He made frequent trips to the emergency room and his wife eventually became a nurse after helping to treat his ailments.
"I was mentally, physically and spiritually humbled by 9/11," Braman said.
Sometimes when he talks about the day, he feels an extreme sense of anxiety, Braman said, comparing it to PTSD. He still breaks out in "goose-bumps" all over, he said.
One moment that he doesn't mind remembering, however, occurred on the second day of the recovery operation. Braman and his team found a battered Marine Corps flag among the Pentagon ruins. They carried it out and the media began snapping photographs.
"We told everybody it was a sign of resilience," Braman said.
Braman medically retired from the Army last year and is now taking college classes. But he wants to continue serving as best he can, by keeping alive the spirit that followed 9/11.
"After 9/11 everybody was waving the flag," he said, explaining there was a spirit of patriotism, sacrifice and teamwork.
"As time goes by, people start getting lax," Braman observed.
That's why he wants to continue telling his story.
"I've lived in a glass house for 10 years," Braman said.
"Every time I go out, I pray to God before I speak: 'Dear Lord, let them know that you were there on 9/11.'"
"It's important to give back," Braman said. "Somebody has to carry the torch."