By Gary SheftickSeptember 10, 2016
WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- After 15 years, the number of those injured on 9/11 and still working in the Pentagon is dwindling.
Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, who suffered third-degree burns on over 60 percent of his body, is now a state senator in Granbury, Texas.
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Braman, who pulled numerous casualties out of the Pentagon's smoldering embers, is now retired in California. Doctors have told him that his lungs, which were damaged by the toxic smoke on 9/11, would do better in the low humidity out west.
"Most people I know have either retired or gone on," said Carl Mahnken.
Mahnken is one of those deeply affected by 9/11 and still working in the building.
At 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Mahnken was blown backward in his chair after American Airlines Flight 77 hit the side of the Pentagon just down the hall from where he sat at his computer.
"I got thrown directly backward," he said. Then his computer monitor landed on his head, causing a contusion about the size of a golf ball.
"It happened real quick, in the blink of an eye -- it happened that quick," he said.
ESCAPE TO TRIAGE
Mahnken and co-worker David Theall picked themselves off the floor and grabbed onto wires to guide their way forward out of the building.
"You could hardly walk, because all the walls were down," Mahnken said.
"Dave kind of found a hole and we all ended up getting out on stairwell 54, and started helping people out and helped with triage."
A major had been badly burned. "We loosened his shoes, ripped his pants open so they could see the exposed burns and kept talking to him so he wouldn't go into shock."
An Army nurse by the name of Patricia Horoho, then a lieutenant colonel, showed Mahnken how to set up intravenous needles and bags.
More than a decade later, he met Horoho after she had been promoted several ranks and was serving as the Army's surgeon general.
"I said 'General Horoho, you don't remember me, but on 9/11 ... '"
She looked at him closely for a second and then gave him a huge hug.
"It doesn't matter where you are, you connect to people [from] that day," Mahnken said.
The day after the 9/11 attack, Mahnken went back to the Pentagon and spent a 12-hour shift in the Army Operations Center as a public affairs representative there.
"I just remember the determination on everyone's face, you know this wasn't going to stop us."
He was extremely busy in the days and months that followed. Discussions in the AOC focused on the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, he was taking graduate courses and serving as an Army Reserve officer when not in the Pentagon.
Two years later, he realized some people were having coping issues.
"It takes a long time," he said, to cope with traumatic events like 9/11.
Operation Solace helped counsel some survivors in the months immediately following the attack, Mahnken said, but he feels the dynamics of group sessions would have helped even more.
"When people have these issues, it can't be explained away ... there's a particular process that you have to go through. It's like grieving or anything else."
Before the attack, Mahnken had been helping train officers in media relations and was in an office adjacent to a new first-floor studio when the plane hit about 100 feet away.
He conducted interviews in the days following 9/11 with the Washington Post, CNN, Fox and People magazine.
Mahnken has continued to work with Army Public Affairs and now liaisons with military service groups and veteran service groups. He arranges for group leaders to visit the Pentagon on a periodic basis.
What really ticks him off is when someone suggests that the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was exaggerated.
"I feel like, as we come up on this anniversary, have we forgotten?" Mahnken asked.
RECOVERY TEAM NCOIC
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Braman about the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Braman -- a staff sergeant at the time -- was working in the Pentagon's General Officer Mess when the plane hit the building. Having recently transferred there from a Ranger unit, he ran to the sound of the boom.
He spent about 60 hours digging through the smoldering ruins as a volunteer who became the noncommissioned officer in charge of the recovery team.
He pulled Sheila Moody from the twisted steel of the collapsing building, and she credits him with saving her life. He carried out many others who were not as fortunate.
Other first responders came and went, but Braman worked on, pumped with adrenaline, until he was finally ordered to leave. His burnt uniform was peeled off and sent to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia.
Doctors at the Pentagon's DiLorenzo Health Clinic took x-rays of his lungs and found they were cloudy from the smoke, asbestos, jet fuel and other toxic fumes he had breathed in at the crash site.
He was eventually diagnosed with a type of "industrial asthma," Braman said. He sometimes found it difficult to breath in the high humidity of northern Virginia. So when he retired, he moved back home under doctor's orders to the arid climate of Southern California.
"I feel much better," he said.
Braman has had two separate operations on his spine in which metal rods were inserted.
"That's from years of jumping out of planes," he said. "But I exacerbated the discs from all the recovery work I did, and it pushed the discs into the spinal fluid."
He had to learn how to walk all over again, he said about his first operation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"I still have issues where my hands and feet will go to sleep," he said. He also still gets periodic therapy at the gym.
"I still take 13 different meds ... twice a day," he said. "It is what it is."
Braman has shared his memories of 9/11 with audiences at hundreds of events nationwide over the last 15 years. First he was sent as a representative of the Army, then he decided to keep doing it on his own.
"I still speak all over the country about 9/11 and terrorism awareness," he said.
He works with the sheriff's office where he now lives in Orange County, California as a terrorism liaison officer. He spoke to nine troops of Boy Scouts at a recent event. He also travelled to West Virginia recently and spoke to a coal miner's association.
"I tell the story about 9/11 ... but I tell them, know your equipment, know your men, and rely on your training."
He also works with veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project and helps them overcome their post-traumatic stress disorders.
"I help them work through their triggers," Braman said.
Braman has learned to recognize and control his triggers. Years ago when he talked about 9/11, he would sometimes feel goose bumps and experience paralyzing flashbacks of the human remains he had bagged.
"I've given my wife anxiety over the years," he said. "I'm very hypersensitive still ... I get up in the middle of the night to check and make sure the house is secure."
When he moved to California, it was tough to go through some of his belongings from 2001. He said he felt a "tingling in the back of the neck" and his hair stood up.
"It happens less and less," he said, but every once in a while a trigger goes off, making him feel like he's there again.
'ABOUT ALL OF US'
"It wasn't just me who went back in the building to do all that stuff," he said. "9/11 is about all of us."
"No matter where I go, whether it be the smallest town or the largest city, there's somebody who's either related or knew somebody at any of the three crash sites," he said. "That's crazy in itself, in how much it affected the whole country."