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9/11 Memories - Kate McGraw

Kate McGraw, DCoE Deployment Health Clinical Center interim director Kate McGraw, DCoE Deployment Health Clinical Center interim director

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The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened the day before I became flight commander and chief of mental health at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. The role included providing operational mental health support for Dover Port Mortuary and its mission to ensure dignity, honor and respect for the fallen as they prepare fallen service members to return to their families.

When we heard the World Trade Center tower was hit, my team immediately went into a 24/7 operational battle rhythm that lasted for six weeks. I led a team of 20 mental health providers who supported all mortuary workers including individuals from all medical specialties, law enforcement and support staff. Our team’s job was to offer constant support to mortuary staff to ensure individuals were functioning from a mental health perspective and to assist those who weren’t.

It was an incredibly tough, stressful job for many reasons. It was my first time working with remains and it was a personal challenge to stay fully available and functional in an environment with so much loss. The reality of the impact of war really hit home – what it does to the physical body and the huge sacrifice our military members make on a daily basis. I managed by focusing on the importance of the lives lost and leading an amazing team that was steadfastly dedicated to ensuring proper respect for the fallen service members and their families.

Many people who worked in mortuary affairs during that time suffered for years afterward, whether they were dentists, chaplains, medical examiners or staff at military treatment facilities who arranged body transfers. I was forever changed as well. I rarely talk about that time and watched no media coverage of the attacks for at least 10 years. Even though we are in the military or support the military and understand its mission, we are all human and are all impacted by traumatic events.

After my two-year assignment at Dover, I left the military for family reasons and went into the civilian sector. But I soon returned to Dover and eventually came to the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury where I continue to work to improve the psychological health of our nation’s service members and their families. There is no greater mission, and that fact was never truer than on Sept. 11, 2001.

McGraw is now the interim director of the Deployment Health Clinical Center, one of three centers of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE).

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