The smell of smoke triggers the all-too-vivid memories of a September morning at the Pentagon that forever changed the life of Southern California native Christopher Braman and the country he served for nearly 20 years in an Army uniform and continues to honor, well past a medical retirement.
It’s the same for Sheila Moody.
She’s retired now too, from two decades of tenure as a civilian employee at the iconic five-sided headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. But the smell of smoke can put Moody back in her cubicle where the New York state transplant sat at her desk for the first time to do the work of an accounting job she officially started that very same morning.
For both, it conjures the smell of jet fuel – and the smell of death.
Beyond the emotional scars of Sept. 11, 2001, they also share the mark of physical burns – on his lungs, on her hands – from the intense flames and burning debris that then-Staff Sgt. Braman ignored to rescue Moody and others. He reached through the smoldering darkness as she clapped her hands to guide him, unable to call out again because she was choking.
Of the three people Braman would help to escape the damaged building, Moody was the only one to survive. He would plunge inside toxic, smoldering ruins again and again over three days, helping to recover and bag the remains of 63 individuals among the 184 victims who died when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the west side of the Pentagon. Moody would be transferred from a local hospital to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she underwent skin grafts on both hands.
The soldier and the survivor talked for the first time at her hospital bed a week after he saved her life. Next came an emotional surprise appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show in November 2001 when Moody publicly thanked Braman in person.
They’ve reunited on other occasions over the years – memorial services and news segments marking 9/11 anniversaries, and, more privately, a joyous 2003 get-together of their two families in 2003 at a country buffet restaurant in Virginia. (Moody’s three children wanted to personally thank the man who rescued their mother.)
Just last month, the two traveled to New York City from their respective homes – his on the West Coast in Orange County, hers on the East Coast in Maryland – to be interviewed by “ABC World News Tonight” anchor David Muir for a week of special 9/11 programming. It’s possible they could meet again on the day of the 20th anniversary, for a commemoration at the grounds of the Pentagon.
Each has dealt with the intervening years in their own way. But there will always be that connection in the hellfire, and a shared faith in God that has sustained them throughout their lives: Braman prayed right after the attack for strength to do what was needed. Moody prayed to stay alive.
“Our prayers must have met somewhere,” Moody said.
“I thank Jesus Christ as my savior, but I thank Sgt. Christopher Braman as my rescuer. God called him to order and put him into action.”
Life after mass death
Between the two of them, Braman has been the more visible and vocal reminder of the four aircraft hijackings by Osama Bin Laden’s suicidal squad of terrorists. The coordinated attacks led to the destruction of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City, damaged the west side of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Va., and saw a group of passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 storm the cockpit and force a fatal crash in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
In all, nearly 3,000 people died from the deadliest terrorist acts on American soil. At least 25,000 were injured.
Braman, who turned 53 in August, emerged as a willing spokesman who still travels the country to talk about and give instruction on terrorism awareness. He’s a cheerleader of sorts to hospitalized children, cancer patients, wounded veterans, and others in need of a boost. Fully retired in 2010 from the Army on a medical disability, Braman will don his dress blues for such engagements.
The charred uniform he wore while searching for people inside the Pentagon after the attack was sent to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Va.
Other mementos and awards from his Army career are displayed in a glass-top table in the living room of his modest home, where a cabinet also bears the Olympic torch he carried, inscribed with the words “light the fire within.” His keepsakes, including five-sided commemorative coins minted by the military, vie for attention with bins of toys that belong to his 4-year-old grandson, whom Braman spends a lot of time with at home.
Braman and his wife, a heart surgery nurse, have seen their three daughters attend college, graduate school and nursing school, with financial assistance from the Pentagon Victims Fund of the nonprofit Army Emergency Relief.
His Purple Heart and the Soldier’s Medal he was awarded for his bravery on 9/11 are stored away somewhere, honors that Braman still insists he didn’t really deserve: “It was all God’s intervention. It had nothing to do with me.”
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As sharp as he looks in uniform – still a muscular 5-foot-10 from doing Pilates, laps in a pool and 70-minute elliptical workouts – the square-jawed Braman also wears his scars, seen and unseen, from that day.
He suffers from occupational asthma. His lungs, which he compares to that of a coal miner, were severely and permanently damaged by breathing in jet fuel, smoke, asbestos, chemical fumes and human matter. The heat and chemicals seared his nasal cavity through to his esophagus. He also exacerbated wear and tear on his spine from his days as an Army Ranger who parachuted into conflicts from the Middle East to the Balkans.
A jagged scar shoots above his shirt collar up the nape of his neck, the remnant of three spinal surgeries to remove discs and insert titanium rods. He suffers from acid reflux. He takes 13 medications twice a day and keeps an asthma inhaler, a nebulizer and an EpiPen handy.
And then there’s the post-traumatic stress he’s learned to deal with through yoga, meditation and prayer. It’s not just the smell of smoke that will take him back to the awful scenes of 9/11, but also the distinct odor of Bengay ointment, which he and others who searched for bodies smeared on the inside of their respiratory masks – the kind house painters use – to mask the odor around them.
Whenever he relives that day, he cringes as sweat beads on the back of his neck and his heart races.
“You become hyper-focused and the reality around you at that moment has faded away. In your mind, you have to go through it again and again.”
Other times there are nightmares from those 60 hours he spent as part of a forensic team retrieving what they could of obliterated bodies, taking the utmost care to place the remains in body bags that they refused to let touch the ground – one last act to honor the dead.
“For me there are ghosts at the Pentagon,” Braman said. “I walked among the dead during and after 9/11.”
He keeps walking forward.
His message to those dealing with hardships: “You can survive. You have strength.”
His warning to a divided nation, from political leaders to average citizens: “After 9/11, everybody was waving the flag and it was kumbaya. Then, we got comfortable again, forgetting that we’re at war.”
He jokes that he is a real-life “Forrest Gump,” given his many public appearances, including as a torchbearer for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, his encounters with the men who have occupied the Oval Office and other dignitaries pre- and post-9/11, along with the many news articles, books and documentaries. He also testified during the punishment phase in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who came to be known as “the 20th hijacker” and is serving a life sentence without parole.
Over the past two decades, Braman has repeated a mantra: The heroism that took place on 9/11 – from firefighters in New York to the passengers aboard Flight 93 to the military members and others who rescued people at the Pentagon – is not about one individual.
“It’s about all of us.”
Sound of two hands clapping
Braman says that to Sheila Moody, too, telling her when he can, “I wasn’t the only who rescued you.”
Moody knows this. There was also Alan Wallace, one of three firefighters on duty at the Pentagon fire station that day. Moody didn’t forget Wallace, exchanging Christmas cards over the years then meeting him face to face again when the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon was dedicated in September 2008.
Moody is 62 and retired from 37 years as a federal employee, crunching numbers for the Army and the Department of Defense. She spends her time looking after her parents and parents-in-law, who all live with her and her husband in their Maryland home. To her, it’s a blessing to do that. She has three grandchildren, the newest born July 1. She’s the “grandma taxi” for a granddaughter who plays basketball and volleyball, sticking around to cheer from the stands.
Moody said it’s hard to describe the connection one has to the person who “rescued you from imminent danger.” But she uses words like admiration and bravery when talking about Braman.
“I just admire him for his service. Not everybody can do that. Not everybody is cut out to be that.”
Moody was brave in her own way that day. She sent soothing words in the dark to a coworker who was in a cubicle behind her and told Moody her skin was on fire.
Doctors repaired Moody’s burned hands with skin taken from her hips. They remain scarred, but she can use them as she had before. She went back to work at the Pentagon in January 2002. That took a lot of soul-searching and prayer. And a psychologist whom she describes as a “face your fears” type told her to go back to the building at least one more time.
“After all the nerves and anxieties and the fear, I felt like, ‘OK, Lord, you preserved my mind, my body, my abilities and this was the job I was hired to do.’”
Her office had been relocated to the Pentagon’s basement. Nearly everyone in the work area where she began her new job on 9/11 had perished – 43 people in all, between the accounting and budget offices that were right across from each other. Moody was one of three people in her office that day to survive. The others: a badly burned woman, who also had started her job the same day as Moody, and the supervisor who hired them both.
“Why the Lord chose to set me aside, I can’t answer that.”
Sometimes, especially when she is asked to do an interview about 9/11, she’ll think about how she doesn’t want to be known as the Sheila who survived the attack on the Pentagon, but rather just “plain old Sheila.” Then she’ll pray and a different thought comes to her: “Lord, you gave me this testimony, you allowed Chris to pull me out.”
“When I take the emphasis off of me and look at what God has done, then it’s, ‘OK, I’m an instrument in your hand.’ I’m going to talk about how good God is and what he’s done for me the past 20 years.”
Moody retired from her federal job in 2014, then spent five more years doing government contract work.
She recalls the sense of “us against them” in the country following the attack.
“We were united as a nation in that we all had a common enemy.” These days, Moody said, we are divided.
“Now the enemy is ourselves. We don’t have to wait for terrorists to come into the country and attack us. We’re attacking ourselves.”
Moody has a bad feeling about where the country is headed: “You just don’t know how this is going to end. It doesn’t look like it’s going to end well.”
Braman is equally uneasy, particularly given the chaotic departure from Afghanistan.
“We’re very vulnerable, the way we’ve left Afghanistan,” he said.
He called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to stabilize the country and allow the continued exit of Afghans who want to leave. Then he wants to see the same mercy and kindness in the country that Moody also prays for: “We need to accept them as refugees.”
That would be another kind of 9/11 rescue.