A New Yorker and 9/11 first responder who later soldiered in Afghanistan finds encouragement for his marriage through Operation Heal Our Patriots.
To this day, 13 years later, Tito Velez can’t stand to look at any of the pictures.
Immediately after Islamic terrorists slammed commercial airliners into the twin towers at the World Trade Center, Tito, a first responder with the New York Police Department, rushed to the scene.
What he saw that terrifying day both sickened him and eventually became the catalyst for serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the United States Army.Tito and his wife Grisel were among ten military couples—including four active-duty Army Rangers—who spent the 15th and final week of the Operation Heal our Patriots summer season at our Alaska wilderness camp.
It is also the week commemorating the dark day when an unprecedented terror attack took the lives of nearly 3,000 people. On September 11, staff and Operation Heal Our Patriots participants in Port Alsworth marked the date with a special lowering of the American flag by the Rangers.
“Shortly after the towers went down, we got the call to head to Ground Zero,” Tito recalled after the ceremony, emotion rising in his voice. “ We were part of the search and rescue team, and all I can tell you is that there were body parts all over the place.
“I cannot look at any video or images of 9/11. It bothers me so much. I get upset.”
Tito, who personally knew two fellow NYPD officers that were killed in the attack, spent eight months at Ground Zero. He was then assigned to a landfill area where he continued to sift through the massive debris, searching for yet more body parts to do DNA testing.
He remembers listening to President George W. Bush announce that the United States would invade Afghanistan and destroy both the Taliban and the al Qaeda network of terrorists whom they harbored. It was a group of 19 al Qaeda members who hijacked four planes and wrecked such carnage on American soil.
“I heard the President say we’re going in, and I decided to join up,” Tito said. Rising to the rank of first sergeant, Tito did two combat tours and is now medically retired. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and also has a lower back injury and partial hearing loss.
“I observed a lot of soldiers getting killed, and I lost a good friend and roommate to a suicide bomber,” Velez said. “It was tough.”
He and Grisel are grateful for their week of marriage enrichment in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots.
“We’ve learned a lot from the chaplains, and it’s been such an encouraging time,” he said.