American Spirit

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Curtis Almeter

Joplin Fire Marshall Dale Brooks adds his stitch to the National 9/11 flag at a stitching ceremony Sunday

Nathan Mills

University President Bruce Speck summed up the feelings of everyone in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center as he opened the 9/11 memorial service on Sunday.

“For those who do not understand the power of freedom and the goodness of this country, let them come to Joplin,” he said.

“Let them see the outpouring of support from around the world.  From people who sent donations from all over the world, from people from volunteers who came here to help us. That is the spirit of America, and it is alive and well today. And you can see it in Joplin.”

The event started at Cunningham Park as the National 9/11 flag was presented and held for a moment of silence honoring those who died in the attacks 10 years ago.

Members of the military, police, firefighters, EMS personnel and tornado survivors all took turns holding the flag outstretched over 26th street, with the ruins of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in the background.

People from all over the country lined the street to snap pictures and remember those who lost their lives on 9/11 and May 22.

Dolores Hutcheson, a sergeant with the Mena, Ark., police department attended the service, where she was brought to tears. She came with a message for Joplin.

“I hope that we can convey to the people of Joplin that it’s gonna be all right,” she said.

“It’s not gonna be today, it’s not gonna be tomorrow, but at some point down the road you can come back and everything’s gonna be all right.”

Hutcheson’s message is especially powerful as Mena was devastated by a tornado just two years ago, one which killed three and injured 30.

She said Mena has nearly recovered, and Joplin will too.

As the silence ended, the flag was folded up, loaded into a fire truck, and driven through town along the path of the tornado, making its way to Southern’s campus.

There, a second service began, honoring 9/11 victims, especially police and firefighters who gave their lives that day.

Joplin Police Chief Lane Roberts described how the public perception of police has changed since that day.

“They [police and firefighters] were all scared,” he said. “They went anyway. In so doing, they exemplified all that public service should represent. In a few disbelieving blinks of an eye, we went from pigs to heroes again.”

He noted that their duty to service that day cost them everything as they fought to help anyone they could.

The flag that started at Cunningham Park now served as a backdrop for these speeches, and Roberts pointed out its significance.

“There is something poetically right and fitting that this flag should complete its restoration a decade later in a city just beginning its own restoration, a city who has itself become a symbol of courage, resiliency and unity, demonstrating once again what it means to be an American,” he said.

He concluded his speech by saying, “Thank you New York, thank you Joplin, and God bless the United States of America.”

It was a fitting tribute for those in attendance. The service wasn’t just about New York or Joplin, but the country as a whole, as it continues to heal 10 years later.

Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles spoke next, remembering his experience from 9/11.

As he got into work that morning, the news was all over television. He sat with his coworkers and feared for their brothers and sisters in New York.

“We were horrified at the thought of the firefighters and EMS personnel, what they were going to do over the next several hours as they responded to the call,” he said.

After leaving work, Randles went through town and took note of the atmosphere in Joplin.

“I got in my car and went for a drive that day,” he said.

“The city was deserted. There were no cars out, there we no pedestrians out. No one was doing anything or shopping or anything.

It was an eerie silence. In a way it was scary to be in the city that day.”

Randles recalled his childhood and the way his parents spoke of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

He thought it strange then that most could recall where they were when they heard the news.

Sept. 11 has become that day for him.

“I knew it was a life-changing moment, just the same as my parents had had back in 1963 [Kennedy’s assassination],” he said.

“But it was not the sound of a rifle, but the sounds of jet engines. I knew the world would never be the same again.”

It seems all Americans could echo those thoughts. The world has changed, specifically the United States.

The military is no exception.

Staff Sgt. John Grayson, marine and army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said those changes are unmistakable.

He made it known that young men and women who enlist in the military today are “almost guaranteed” to see combat, calling attention to their courage in doing so.

“They’re getting attacked over there so we don’t get attacked over here,” he said.

As Grayson finished his speech, he was greeted with a standing ovation, showing Joplin’s support for U.S. troops.

Before Speck called the next speaker to the podium, he asked that those in attendance honor all servicemen and women.

After all were honored, attention turned to the flag in the background.

National 9/11 flag restored

As Lane Roberts alluded to in his speech, the National 9/11 flag has been touring the country for over four years, slowly being restored.

Jeff Parness, who Speck introduced as an “amazing American,” is the founder of the New York Says Thank You Foundation. He has headed the effort to restore the National 9/11 flag.

“And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” he said, quoting The Star-Spangled Banner.

“In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, a 30-ft. American flag hung dangling, torn and tattered, from a scaffolding directly south of where the World Trade Center once stood.”

That flag started its restoration process in Greensburg, Kan., after an EF-5 tornado decimated 95 percent of the town.

Survivors of that disaster were on hand to watch the final pieces come together.

“Our goal was to make this flag whole again on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, at which point it will become part of the permanent collection at the 9/11 museum,” Parness said.

Joplin was the last stop on the tour, allowing residents to put their own stitch in a flag that has seen more than any ever should.

“That flag has seen 3,000 people die,” Robert Hutcheson, Dolores’ husband and Polk County, Ark., deputy sheriff, said.

“That flag’s got a story to tell.”

In fact, it’s got several stories to tell.

Survivors of the Greensburg tornado were the first of many to put stitches in the flag.

Servicemen and women from all 50 states, survivors of the Columbine massacre, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, and more have stitched the National 9/11 flag.

Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was among those critically injured in a shooting near Tuscon earlier this year, was first in line to put a stitch in the flag when it came to Arizona.

Parents have sewn their sons’ military medals into it.

A piece of the flag that was draped over Abraham Lincoln after he was shot now holds together a corner of the flag.

It now represents many pieces of the United States just as it represents 9/11.

“I hope and I pray that for generations to come that this flag does not just tell the story about what happened on 9/11, but it tells the story about what happened on 9/12, when Americans came together,” Parness said.

“That’s what the national flag tour is all about.”

Roberts echoed the sentiment, discussing the days after Sept. 11 and how Americans, specifically New Yorkers, went on with their lives.

“New Yorkers stood up, dusted off, and with dignity and resolve demonstrated to the entire world what it means to be an American: courageous, resilient, united and their country stood with them,” he said.

In that sense, the flag may be indicative of that spirit. It was torn to pieces, but 10 years later, it’s been completely revived.

“When they talk about America, I mean that flag is America,” Dolores Hutcheson said.

“They couldn’t destroy it, and we’ve put it back together.  We can do America like that.”

Cara Gooch, freshman marketing and management major, attended the flag stitching ceremony. The significance of the day wasn’t lost on her.

“I got goosebumps,” she said. “This is history in the making.”

Robert Hutcheson has followed the flag since the tour stopped in Mena, Ark., last year.

He came to Joplin for the ceremony and plans to continue to follow it whenever he can. He’ll head to Tuscaloosa next.

“I can’t even tell you what that flag means to me,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes.

“If there was a guy come up and said right now that someone had to give their life to keep me from destroying this flag, I’d walk up there and let him kill me to keep from destroying that flag.  I promise you. I’ll die right there in front of everybody.”

As the stitching ceremony got underway, Parness had a message from New York to give to the people of Joplin.

“Never forget May 23,” he said.

“Never forget the kindness, the volunteers who came here. Because that shows the world who we really are.”

Nearly 300 million Americans have experienced the National 9/11 flag either in person or through TV coverage. Now that the final stitches have been sewn, the flag will be sent to its final destination at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum at the former site of the World Trade Center in New York.