How a 9/11 First Responder Found Healing Years After the Attack

“A domino effect was taking place among his unit members. Post-traumatic stress disorder develops often eight to 10 years after a trauma, and their unit had the highest level of casualties since Vietnam.”
September 11, 2018 Updated: September 13, 2018    

In early September, the devastating details of Sept. 11, 2001 often re-flood the minds of individuals most impacted by the tragic events of that somber Tuesday.

Early that morning, terrorists hijacked four planes, flying them into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing about 3,000 people.

To retired serviceman Josh Grzywa, one of the first responders on the scene of the attack on the Pentagon, 9/11 is anything but a distant memory.

However, a program for wounded military service members and their spouses aided Grzywa in letting go of the bitterness and anger that resulted from Sept. 11, 2001 and the war that followed. Instead, the husband and father left the program with his faith restored and his mind focused on the present.

The Night Before

Grzywa, who was born in Illinois and grew up attending Catholic schools, said he felt called at a young age to serve his country.

In 1999, Grzywa enlisted in the U.S. Army. His first assignment was in Washington D.C., where he served alongside his unit, the Old Guard of the Third Army Regiment, rendering service to fallen soldiers at the Arlington Cemetery.

“I thought I had life figured out,” he told Humanity. “I had a grand plan for my military career, and then 9/11 happened and that all changed.”

On Sept. 10, 2001, Grzywa and his unit visited Gettysburg.

After thinking on the events surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, Grzywa said he went to bed that night appreciative to have enlisted in the service during a time of peace.

“I had no idea that a battle was going to begin the very next day,” he said.

During his first assignment in the Army, Grzywa also was responsible for attending to visiting dignitaries. He awoke on Sept. 11, 2001 ready to escort an Australian official to the Pentagon and unprepared to respond to the tragedy that would unfold before his eyes.

Thrust Into War

Hearing that two planes struck the Twin Towers earlier in the morning caused Grzywa to feel uneasy.

“My military instincts were telling me something was seriously wrong,” he said.

Before he could fully comprehend the calamity unfolding at the Twin Towers, Grzywa and his unit were being deployed to perform rescue operations at the Pentagon, which also was struck by an aircraft, American Airlines Flight 77.

The scene was chaotic. Smoke and fire were pouring from the building.

“I knew immediately that we were under attack,” he said.

After a couple of days, rescue attempts at the Pentagon evolved into a recovery effort. Thirty lives were lost at the attack on the Pentagon, and Grzywa found himself questioning the existence of a caring God.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Grzywa and his unit were deployed to Iraq as part of a global response to terrorism.

Serendipitous Meeting

While serving in Iraq, Grzywa, an Army Master Sergeant, was injured in a blast that left him with a concussion and lower spine damage requiring surgery.

During this time, Grzywa became friends with a serviceman, named Owen, who also was badly hurt during his deployment to Iraq.

Their paths crossed again in Germany, while Grzywa was going through additional training. Grzywa and Owen decided to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day together in an Irish pub when in walked Owen’s sister, Neysa.

“We say the rest is history,” said Neysa.

Neysa, a professional ballet dancer at the time, was in Germany visiting her brother, not looking to fall in love. Yet, that is exactly what happened.

The two married in 2009 in Arizona. Grzywa remained in the Army until September 2014.

“Looking back now, we did not realize the gravity of the situation. We had no idea how Sept. 11, 2001, would impact our lives five, 10 and 15 years later,” Neysa said.

Sept. 11, 2001 and two deployments to Iraq had a lasting effect on her husband.

A ‘Dark Time’

Grzywa told Humanity, he watched as many of his comrades lost their lives during his second deployment overseas.

“My best friend Joe was killed by a sniper,” he said. “After that, our outlook changed on how the deployment was going. We stopped wondering if we would get hurt or killed and started wondering when it was going to happen.”

Several years ago was a particular “dark time” for her husband, Neysa said.

In a three-week period, eight members of Grzywa’s unit chose to end their own lives.

Operation Heal Our Patriots, Samaitan Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska
Samaritan Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“I often found myself wondering what would be the tipping point that would push Josh in a bad direction. I knew his mind was fragile,” she said. “A domino effect was taking place among his unit members. Post-traumatic stress disorder develops often eight to 10 years after a trauma, and their unit had the highest level of causalities since Vietnam.”

When Neysa heard about Operation Heal Our Patriots, a recovery program for veterans and their spouses, through Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational Christian organization, she encouraged her husband to apply.

“We knew a couple who participated and had a wonderful experience. I did not want to push him into it, though,” she said.

For a while, Grzywa assumed he did not need the program. It takes place along Lake Clark in Alaska and is designed to provide injured and wounded service members and their spouses with an opportunity to address physical, relationship and spiritual issues together, with the help of counselors and other support personnel.

“I thought that someone likely needed it more than I did. I was unaware of the areas I could work on and improve in my life,” he said.

Neysa believes the couple ended up applying for the program “at exactly the right time.”

Operation Heal Our Patriots, Samaitan Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)
Operation Heal Our Patriots, Samaritan Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“Josh had turned his back on God after what he had gone through and because of the friends he had lost. He was angry,” she said. “I struggled to get him to go to church. He knew I wanted our children raised in church, so he would go sometimes, but he was not happy about it.”

Primarily because he wanted to explore Alaska, Grzywa eventually did agree to apply for the program.

Operation Heal Our Patriots, Samaritan Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

Forgiveness

While taking part in the extensive week of life and marriage rebuilding sessions and prayer times in Alaska, Grzywa said a chaplain with Operation Heal our Patriots just looked right at him and openly asked, “When are you going to forgive God?”

“That really got me thinking,” he said.

Neysa said the program was beneficial in helping them reconnect as a couple, through Biblical, marriage building sessions.

John Gryzwa, a first responder at the Pentagon, at Operation Heal Our Patriots. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“They equipped us with the tools we needed to work through unique situations in our marriage because of his military experience and the fact that he had been injured in the line of duty,” she said.

Because the program takes place in a remote setting, Grzywa said it was beneficial for him to be so far removed from everyday life for a week so he could concentrate on how to improve his marriage.

“We were away from all the distractions and able to work on our relationship while enjoying unique experiences in Alaska together,” he said.

To be in the program with other military couples also was a positive experience, Neysa said.

Josh and Neysa in Alaska with Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

The program, offered each September, provides servicemen and servicewomen with numerous opportunities to talk with just each other.

“It is hard to explain how powerful it is for them to have that reconnection,” Neysa said. “They crave that camaraderie of having someone who understands what they have been through. It is incredibly powerful.”

The program provides servicemen and servicewomen a safe environment in which to be open and share the burdens and worries they carry, Neysa said.

John baptized in Alaska. (Operation Heal Our Patriots)

During the program, Grzywa and his wife were baptized, on the anniversary of 9/11, to show a newfound commitment to a life of faith in God, letting go of the past and focusing on the future.

“It signified a rebirth on that day. We came home with a unified purpose and direction. We had a renewed sense of who we were and how to build on the foundation we received at Samaritan Lodge Alaska,” Grzywa said.

The couple now is very active in church. They also spend time encouraging other military couples to turn to God for comfort and peace.

Neysa said she is quick to recommend Operation Heal our Patriots to others needing to heal from the wounds of war.

Discussion time. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“This program can make a difference in your life. It did in mine,” Grzywa would like to say to veterans and active duty servicemen and servicewomen needing to recover physically and mentally from war. “Take that step to participate in this program. I promise, you won’t regret it.”

Josh and Neysa Grzywa in Alaska. (Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)
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