By Cormac Gordon Staten Island Advance
Sal Cassano looked out on the four-abreast line of West Point cadets jogging across the West Street finish line in Sunday morning’s Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run.
The cadets show up every September now.
Like so many of the other 40,000 or so runners and walkers who’ve become attached to what is among the most visible and vibrant remembrances of 9/11 anywhere.
“A year from now those kids will be fighting a war for us,” said Cassano, New York City’s fire commissioner.
And the Huguenot resident is right, of course. No surprise there. Cassano has some perspective on being a soldier.
He’s a Vietnam vet, 1966-67, who remembers what it was like when he returned from a year with the 11th Armored Cavalry. That is to say, he recalls the pretty much utter disinterest most Americans had for returning veterans of a war they didn’t like.
Things are different since then, thankfully.
Groups like the Siller Foundation, something born in kitchen and basement meetings on Staten Island in the days following 9/11, are part of the reason for that change.
Yesterday the organization that was founded to honor the memory of firefighters like Stephen Siller and the other dead of 9/11, packed lower Manhattan with runners, volunteers and supporters.
One of the honored guests was a guy named Mike Schlitz.
Make that retired Sgt. First Class Mike Schlitz – “It’s spelled like the old beer” – Airborne Ranger.
In February of 2007, Schlitz was blown very nearly to kingdom come by an exploding IED while patrolling near Baghdad. The force of the detonation turned his Humvee into a shrapnel-propelling oven, killed his buddies, and tossed him, a ball of flames, to the side of the road.
Most everyone assumed so.
But somewhere in the deepest part of a Midwestern soul with the taste for adventure, there was a steel sense of will.
He’d wind up losing 85 percent of his skin – and both arms below the elbow. He barely recalls the first six months post-attack, and over the ensuing years Schlitz would undergo 80 surgeries.
He is badly scarred and battered, but nowhere near defeated.
What was Schlitz doing yesterday in New York in the bright sun of one more glorious September morning?
He ran the race from Brooklyn to Downtown, for starters.
Then Schlitz chatted up the press, and hung with his fellow wounded warrior buddies and their Vietnam era friends from the Rolling Thunder motorcycle non-profit, folks who are always around to lend a hand to the younger veterans.
Schlitz is smart, engaging and full of life.
His work these days consists, in part, of speaking to veterans about adjusting to civilian life.
And active soldiers about things like suicide prevention and looking out for their buddies.
And he talks to regular citizens about not forgetting the military who are coming back home.
“I’m busy all the time,” the 36-year-old said. “I spent 81 days at home all of last year. I’m hoping to make 90 days this year, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”
There will be a new home soon for Schlitz, a technically space-aged house to help him cope with his physical limitations. It’s being constructed from the ground up in rural Georgia, near his old posting at Fort Benning.
Much of the funding is coming from the Siller Foundation, and the foundation of actor and veterans advocate Gary Sinise.
It’s money donated by the public.
“They’re making my life so much easier,” said Schlitz, who credits people from Cassano’s generation for the help some veterans now receive. “Because of the way they were treated, those guys made sure it didn’t happen to us.”
The importance of such good works is pretty obvious.
We’re still at this global battle that began the day 12 years ago when West Brighton’s Stephen Siller, father of five, ran his way into the history books.
The terror continues.
What’s gone on in recent days in Nairobi, Kenya, and Baghdad, Iraq and Kashmir, India, could have had datelines much more familiar to us all.
There was a group of Tunnel to Towers runners wearing the words “London Fire Brigade” on their shirts. Another shirt said simply, “I Run for Boston.” Like New York, both those towns have known what it’s like to be attacked by the fanatics.
Standing on West Street yesterday, surrounded by enough security personnel to win the battle of Agincourt, reminds anyone who was there that life is different now. It’s a feeling reinforced by Coast Guard gun boats with mounted machine guns escorting morning ferries across the harbor.
“We have to be there for these people,” Cassano said, while more and more West Point cadets crossed through the shadow of the new World Trade Center.
Cassano is right, again.
Mike Schlitz and those like him deserve at least that much.