When Americans were left shattered, Maj. Matthew Wysocki’s mission was to see “holy in all the hell.”
“It’s a job nobody wants but I was equipped to do,” he said.
When Wysocki, a chaplain at Fort Gordon at the time, arrived at Dover Air Force Base days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon, the victims’ bodies were already arriving.
But they were arriving in bits and pieces.
“I’m the son of a funeral director so I’m very used to being around the deceased, grief and loss, but I had never witnessed those sights before,” Wysocki said.
One lieutenant tasked with wrapping the bodies came to a halt and began shaking when he didn’t recognize the piece before him. His job was to wrap the bodies from the feet upward in a blanket. Safety pins would then be inserted in a specific direction from the foot to the head.
Without identifying the body, the lieutenant couldn’t begin.
It had been an emotional week. When word of the terrorist attacks hit Fort Gordon’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center on Tuesday, the hospital chaplain had to think fast. He stumbled through the day – still in shock – while trying to keep the doctors, nurses and patients calm.
The next morning he was instructed to “say something smart” at a memorial ceremony that would take place in two hours.
“After that I was really kind of tapped, really tired and not prepared for what was coming next,” Wysocki said.
By Thursday, Wysocki was instructed to pack his bags and fly out immediately to Dover.
His mission: Care for the families of those killed at the Pentagon and be a chaplain who speaks “Army green.”
With a Bible and a few clothes, Wysocki headed for the jet that would take him to Dover, not sure how long the mission would take.
Several chaplains had arrived at the air force base, but Wysocki was the only Army chaplain.
When families didn’t arrive for help, Wysocki took to ministering the staff, who by Day 5 were exhausted.
“It was a mission that everyone took seriously,” he said. “I was there two weeks and I don’t think I slept the whole time. I wasn’t the only one.”
Ten years later, one woman sticks in his mind.
She was a young airman tasked with processing the personal effects of the deceased. The chaplain watched as she quietly went through wallets and photos and separated them on white sheets. When she finished, she got to the position of attention and saluted.
“No one was there to see her. No one told her to,” he recalled. “It was what she could do to honor the life of our fallen. Since that time, I’ve never thought of a salute in the same way.”
Throughout his two weeks, he kept his emotions in check. It wasn’t until he got home and sat down to fried chicken that all his emotions began to flood out.
The smell of the Southern comfort food reminded him of one of his less comforting days in Dover.
The staff was serving fried chicken, but no one was eating. The smell, mixed with the smells of the port mortuary, was repulsing, he recalled.
Wysocki recommended that the food be moved outside.
“I had kept it together the whole time,” Wysocki said. “God had strengthened me; my mission had strengthened me. I didn’t have time to grieve. The chicken reminded me and brought in that moment all the pain and suffering people were going through and had endured.
“I went to my back deck and began to weep. I never cried like that before in my entire life, but it brought me to my knees.”
Those days in Dover, he said, have helped to shape the way he has handled situations since.
“In my moment of weakness, when I was crying, weeping and grieving the loss of everything I had seen, I realized that my tears were causing me to be a little bit stronger and a little wiser.”
On this anniversary, he plans to do the same thing he’s done for every anniversary: Say a prayer for those who were killed, their families and their friends.
“And I’ll also give thanks, somewhat paradoxically, that was meant to hurt and to harm has somehow in the economy of God figured a way of bringing some kind of good.”