The Loudmouth Project

In DC on 9/11

In this episode, Sergeant Mandee Stakely talks about being in Washington D.C. when terrorists flew into the Pentagon. As a sergeant in the Army, she had to help young soldiers do the job they’d been trained to do, as well as help them deal with the trauma of that day. Although not in the Pentagon, she was tasked with gathering supplies and food to support the rescue and recovery effort taking place. She shares the impact of that day and how the Army affected her life both while serving and after.

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Tom Luoma
Hello, I'm Tom Luoma.

Jason Comstock
And I'm Jason Comstock, and welcome to We Happy Few, our podcast that allows veterans and their families to tell their stories,

Tom Luoma
stories that will cover a broad spectrum of lived experiences from time in service to the return home and beyond

Jason Comstock
experiences shared with the hope that all listeners will better understand that sometimes complicated lives of veterans and their families.

Tom Luoma
Thank you for listening to we happy for you.

Alright, today we're going to be hearing a story from Mandy Stakely. Jason, why don't you fill us in a little background of what we're going to be hearing today.

Jason Comstock
Mandy is an army veteran who served in Washington DC on 9/11, and she has an incredible story of of what she experienced on that day.

Mandy
My name is Mandy Stakely. I was a Sergeant in the United States Army. Now I'm just living life. No, I was medically retired in 2008. And now I have had a whole new lease on life....And finally, I'm graduating college after 10 years (Laughing), and so now it's really just about finding alternative ways for mental health. Forget...all the pills and bottles and seek out those things that I love, and I am just I'm doing really good.

Jason Comstock
So what do you think, drew you to join in the army?

Mandy
You know, it's funny, because I have one of those crazy stories of, Oh, you know, I was dating my high school sweetheart, and he went in to the reserves and then came back from basic training, and we talked about getting married. He convinced me that, you know, I would, I would go active duty, and then while I was in basic training, he would go active duty and we'd have joint (inaudible); We'd travel the world and have this great life. ...Didn't work out like that. But I, I think deep down, I've always had a sense of patriotism, because I loved listening to my grandpa tell stories, and I was very aware of my uncle who was in the army,.. but I never imagined myself doing it until that door kind of open.

Jason Comstock
So.. well, I want to know what you did in the White House.

Mandy
Okay, so I was a 92 (inaudible), which is food service, and a lot of people when they think of a cook, they I mean, they're like, Oh, yeah, slop and you know, chili mac everywhere. I would say I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. By luck... I was stationed in Washington DC with the old guard, and by luck, my boss, his daughter, and the head chef at the White House daughter played soccer together. So when he would need, the head chef would need some extra cooks to come in and do prep work and things like that. My boss would just somehow I was not on the schedule for that day, and he'd send me over to the White House. And so I got to cook in the White House, and it was...such an eye opener to, they're putting out these five star meals for 1000 people in this itty bitty kitchen, but the prep work that goes into such things like that, and I was I was one of those people, like I jump in the back pocket and learn everything and anything I can. And so it was really neat to be able to see how that functions; how those dinners happen. And, you know, we set everything up, and we're getting ready to... start serving and to see the head chef go through and look at every plate and then say, "Okay, that one goes to the President." "Okay, that one goes to the first lady." "Okay, and that one goes to so and so," and it was just like oh my gosh, like that food that we worked on, is actually going to the President of The United States like that, that just blew my mind. I can remember the first time I worked there; I got home, and I called my mom and I said, "Mom, you'll never guess what I did today." and she said, "No," because they live in California. And they're not even in tune to what's going on on the east coast. And I said, "Mom, I got to go the bathroom in the White House." (laughing)

And I said, "but not just any bathroom, the worker's bathroom," and to me that was just it was such a thrill, and it's kind of changed as I've watched, like the Christmas holidays and seeing and... getting to see all those It was like oh my goodness, I remember that. I remember that. The funniest thing was years later, I went through as a patient at Walter Reed. President George Bush would have us have once a month the veterans come over and he would take down the cords and roll up the red carpets, and he would just let us enjoy that part of ...the White House, and it was really funny because as we were walking the hallways, I would tell you guys that that's a door right there. And just to get to know those little things, because a small town girl from California chances of ever going to the White House, slim to none, and there I was getting to see that stuff, and I never got to meet.. I worked there when the Clintons were there, and I never got to meet any of the Clintons. But I did get to meet their chocolate lab buddy, and he was cute (lauging). Well worth it.

Tom Luoma
You had mentioned earlier about you know your relationship, I think was it your husband? or boyfriend that... you thought maybe you would join the service together and go see the world and and do all of that, and I think that brings up an interesting point that a lot of people don't know is that soldiers and airmen and Marines and everybody, they have a personal life, even when they're serving an active duty. What challenges are, you know, Did you find that you came up against with your, with your husband in there when you were trying to travel the world and see and do all this dreaming?

Mandy
Well, we...ended up the person that I was engaged to when I joined the military was, we ended up not getting married, and we went our separate ways. But while I was in the service, I did get married, and one of the biggest challenges was cooks and MPs both work shift work, and those are two people that should not get married, because it is a huge challenge. And that is one of the challenges of joint service is that you're having to face each other's schedules. He deployed and was in Iraq, at the same time that I was supposed to be packing up our house, and moving to what we thought was going to be Hawaii, and then the Army said no change that you're going to Japan. So that was a difficult time for us, because...this was at the beginning of Iraq, and so there was not the communication; I would have to wait two or three months. So when the army said no, you're going to Japan, I didn't have a way to get him a message immediately, and so two months after, you know, the papers were signed, and we're definitely going he's just like, no, that's not where I want to be. That's not what I want to do. It did cause problems in our marriage... and it brought forward a lot of problems, non military related, and we actually ended up divorced, but that's one of those things I hear my friends talk about, you know, well, my wife doesn't think I was a good dad, because I was always deployed. Or you know, and I think that's when I had soldiers when I had young guys come in, and they're like, Oh, you know, I would ask them, okay, well, how long have you been married? We've been married like six months, and I would say okay, and when did you join the army? Just a month ago. So you were not a soldier when you married her, or asked her to marry you and married her, and now you are, and now you're having to live this life...So one of the things that I would explain to them is you need to bring her and... there's times that I would have the... new little young wives of these privates come into counseling sessions, so that that wife could then see, this is what we're expecting of your husband. And this is what we're expecting of you. You see a lot of those young wives, some of them struggle with it, because it's like, I didn't sign up for this, I don't want to do this. This sucks. I want my husband to be my husband, and unfortunately, in the military, your job comes first. But I think, for me, one of the other things is, so being a cook coming home from work to walk in, and my husband say, well, what's for dinner? So that was not always, there was a lot of times that I (inaudible) don't care. Whatever you had to say,

Tom Luoma
there seems to be a lot of uniqueness to the issues that are raised in being in the military and having a relationship. The nuances are different, because, you know, you're you're in uniform, and you have a duty, It's not just your job; it's your duty. Do you think that that was an added stress as well? It must have been certainly, because he had to go to Iraq, and you had to go to Japan.

Mandy
You know, on a daily basis, there was a lot of struggle, because when I say shift work, most people I think, think, okay, that's eight hours. No, and most people in the military would say, Oh, that's 12 hours. No, that is, from the time I get there until the time I'm able to leave, and there would be days, you know, I would go in at four o'clock in the morning; we'd work through breakfast, and then we'd work through lunch, and then a lot of times shortly after lunch, I'd have to take my soldiers and do PT, and then I had to handle Okay, what soldiers need to go to the range? What soldiers need.. you know, whatever their issues and problems were, then whatever issues and problems were going on with the different companies as a dining facility, we supported an entire Regiment, and so okay, well, this company is going out to the field. So we've got to make sure that they have this, and it's a lot of juggling a personnel. And so there was oftentimes I worked 15-16 hour days. I would get home and there was a frustration, because, well I expected you home two hours ago. Well, I expected to be home two hours ago, and so... there's that struggle when you do work, shift work, but I think I think that's across the board military. You're soldier 24-7.

Tom Luoma
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Jasen Lee
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Amy Donaldson-Brass
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Jason Comstock
Now, I do have a question, and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to. Would you be willing... to talk about September 11th and your experience?

Mandy
Because 9/11 pretty much I would say as a capstone to my career, and I have done so much therapy and personal healing. I actually love to talk about it because I love to inform people that there are those, you know, I'm here in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I can remember when I moved to Utah, people always talk even to this 10 years later, they're still talking or almost 20 years later, they're still talking about the Olympics, and I kept thinking why don't I remember anything about the 2002 Olympics? Oh, we were still pulling guard duty. We were still under long hours. We were still doing everything we could to recover from the tax on the Pentagon. And so I don't have any problems talking about it; I might get a little lump in my throat. But okay, um, so I was stationed in Washington DC with the old guard, and for people who don't know what the old guard is, that's those are the people that do the ceremonies and the funerals in Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown, and all those different things, and we were actually on Fort Myer, which is the... army base right behind Arlington Cemetery. And we were I was working on a show called Spirit of America, and it's a huge Broadway type show that the Army used to do, that was a time kind of a travel through history. And it was early morning, and we have the the guys were the infantry guys were coming in. They were our actors, and the guys were kind of joking, and they're like, oh, hahaha, this idiot flew his plane into the building. And what are you guys talking about? And I really, it didn't really connect for me, and I didn't know what they were talking about. I knew my husband was taking his he was an MP and worked with the dogs, and so he was taking his dog to the vet, and so I walked over, I walked into the vet clinic that was right there, and the looks on their faces said something was wrong...I saw the TV, and I ran back over and I said, you guys, you guys, that's ...it happened in DC, or in New York, it really happened. There like what, and then the Pentagon gets hit.

And immediately our phones are scrambled. So nobody cell phones working. It's just this constant state of panic. But you kind of know, when you're on a military base, what the procedures are when things get locked down. We could hear cars honking off the base, we had civilians with us, which meant that they had to be kept in place. And those infantry guys got on a bus and they had to go across the bridge to get to their base in DC where other equipment was. Their bus got halted on the bridge, and that infantry company got off the bus and they ran, and they ran probably 3-4 miles to their barracks, got their equipment came back, and those were the guys that were there, pulling out personal effects. They ran there searching for bodies. They were in there, just in the yuck of it all, and I can remember for a long time we were sitting, listening to a car radio, and I always compare it to the War of the Worlds. Because if you've ever listened to that radio broadcast, it's complete chaos. That day, we heard the capital was hit. We heard the Washington Monument had been knocked over. We heard the Lincoln monument was on fire. Just all these chaotic things, and you couldn't go anywhere or see anything, and so then at one point, I decided to go down to the shop at to get our civilians some food, because we didn't have any food or anything, and they had started bringing busloads of the people over from the the Pentagon to get them away from the building, and we sat there for the longest time.I finally got to go. We found a phone that had a line that we could call out, and I called my mom and this is a this is interesting, because I just learned this from her; I called her, and she was at work, and so I called the Office of the school that she worked at, and I just very calmly as I possibly could said, "My name is Mandy (inaudible). I'm in the United States Army. I am the daughter of so and so. I'm in Washington, DC and I need to speak to her right now.

I could hear in the lady's voice that she knew what was going on and everything, and it probably took about four minutes, but they went and got my mom. I just talked to my mom and I told her like, I love you. You know, I don't know what's going on. I can't go anywhere. I'm stuck here for the time being. If anything happens to me, I'm okay, and that's (inaudible). My mom says, "Now that was my worst nightmare, and I hated when you told me that," but what was funny is over Christmas, we were discussing it, and she said, I worked out in a bungalow on the other side of the school, and they kept calling my name over the end come to come to the office for a phone call. And she says I was walking across the field, and... the lady from the office came running and just screaming, "She's okay. She's okay," and I had never heard my mom tell me that story, and I just thought it was so funny, because I I was so scared from my own family. So it was interesting that I just told her, you know, if anything happens to me, I'm happy with doing what I'm doing and proud to be serving my country. This is where I want to be. I'm okay. And she just okay. And I said, Please just go get the family and go home, just go gather the family, go get everybody out of school, just gather the family and go home, and just be together. I was the only food service handler from our dining facility, and our company that was on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, and so I got a phone call from my boss, and he said I want you to go the motor pool. You're going to pick up these guys and these trucks. You're going to go down AP Hill. You're going to pick up all these rations and everything, and had an interesting experience down there that really speaks to I think, a lot of veterans. So we were picking up UGRAs, and that's two cardboard boxes that have enough food to create an entire meal for 50 people. So we're loading up the truck, but this guy kept and there's a plastic band on him, and he kept cutting that band, and I said you can't do that. We have to know which two boxes go together. And he said, Well, I'm trying to save us space, and it was a huge fight, and it took us forever. We had to call his boss. Finally, we get done, and we're on our way back, and we're like, Okay, we got some privates here. We better feed them. So we took him to McDonald's, and he and I were standing by the truck, and he just looked at me and he said, "I am so sorry. You are doing your job. You are doing what you're expected to be doing." He says "I'm an infantry man. I should be on the front lines. I should be there helping, and I'm here driving a truck. I feel so worthless." And I think a lot of veterans, because yes, we have our individual jobs, but when it comes down to it, we're soldiers, and we will do whatever is asked of us or whatever the task is, and we always want to be there in the fight. And that's when it really hit me, and so we ended up not getting back till very late at night and and the roads were completely clear, and if you've ever been to DC coming up 95 just about the point that it turns to go into DC, you kind of hit the Pentagon, and we hit that hill, and that was the first time that I'd seen it, and it really challenges the idea of this is the United States. We're the strongest country in the world, right? And the Pentagon is a symbol of that..to see that was very difficult. We got to the dining facility, and I was up, I think three or four days. I couldn't go home. So I was wearing the same PT shorts and T shirt for three (laughing) three or four days. And something else that hit me was I had soldiers, young guys 19-20 years old, did not even want to cross the street to go to their barracks, because they were so scared. Which something I think a lot of female veterans face is that you have to like be that leader, but you have to show that compassion of kind of like being a mom at the same time, and so it's kind of a balance, because you have to let them know you're a strong firm leader, but at the same time, they need somebody to reassure them that they're okay, and those guys, one of... the strongest memories that I have of that day. Actually, it's the next day, we were serving breakfast and those infantry guys came in, and when they say that war turns boys into men, the same guys who are saying (inaudible) some idiot blew his plane into a building... and telling me jokes the day before came in the next day, their eyes just sunk in and black. I mean, you could just see the depths of their souls, just how much they were impacted by that, and that is something that's the memory I carry with me, and that's the hard part for me personally was, how do I help those guys? How do I as just a sergeant or just a cook; I don't say I'm just a cook anymore. But then (laughing inaudible)...as just a cook or just a sergeant, how do I make those guys know, it's okay? That they're okay? You know, then obviously, years later, Facebook came out, and one of the beautiful things that has happened is over the years, I've had those same guys reach out to me, and that's when I that's when I felt like I got my real sense of peace and and healing for myself was realizing those guys didn't hold it against me that I couldn't fix it or that they had to do that, and that I can be a sounding board for them when they need to vent themselves about their own experience.

Jason Comstock
So you and I met a few years ago, and you definitely weren't talking about this the same way. Well, I'm just gonna ask what did what did you do in order to get to the point where you've kind of embraced this?

Mandy
I don't think it was, I experienced some personal trauma in my life. My second husband, who was a veteran, ended up taking his life. After that happened, I realized I have to do something. I couldn't stay at home, because that was going to eat me up, and I started getting out, and I started just volunteering or going and doing something with other veterans, and it was just kind of interesting that the more I reached out of just wanting to help others, I was finding all this help for myself. I did get some help through the VA, but a lot of it was surrounding myself with veterans who understood and who could help me, but then just learning to meditate cycling. I always say cycling or psych ward, because sometimes I feel like if I couldn't ride my bike, I'd be over in the psych ward, but I think a big part of it was understanding that it didn't happen to me. I saw it. I was there. It will forever be a part of my story, but they, you know, the, the terrorists did not say we want to destroy Mandy's life. We want to create havoc, We want to give her PTSD. Understanding it didn't happen to me. It just happened. I've taken that and embraced every trauma that has been in my life as it didn't happen to me. Nobody sought me out. It just happened. That helps me to look at it as this is a story. Kind of the same way that I look at my husband's suicide is I will never own that. That's not mine. That's his story, but it kind of does give me a platform to go and speak to these other veterans and say, Look, I've dealt with some crap. I get it.

But look what other things you have to do. Look at where you can take your life if you try. I think physical activity is amazing. That's something that a lot of these veterans organizations are doing is just get the veterans out there and get them active, clear their head of their daily cares and just get them active, and I think that played a big part of it. I have done like cognitive processing therapy. I've done a lot of these different therapies that just make you kind of stop and say, I get to choose. I get to choose if I want to be depressed all the time, or I get to create my own happiness. I decided to create my own happiness, and I think that's what's most important.

Tom Luoma
Join us again for the next episode of We Happy Few. If you have comments about the show, please contact us by email at tips@loudmouthproject.com or on Twitter at loudmouthJason or loudmouthTom.

Jason Comstock
check out our website at www.loudmouthproject. com and navigate to the We Happy Few page. You can also find and subscribe to free episodes of our podcast on Google podcast, Apple podcasts, and other places where you find interesting shows. Be sure to review our show as well. We love to get your feedback, and it helps us grow our audience. We would like to thank our producer and editor Josh Tilton, and our creative director Amy Donaldson, for adding the spit and polish to our show.

Tom Luoma
Remember that the more we allow ourselves to listen, the more we allow ourselves to learn.

I'm Tom Lama.

Jason Comstock
And I'm Jason Comstock, and until next time, keep listening, keep learning and stay engaged.

Tom Luoma
If you or any veteran, you know is feeling self destructive or suicidal. Please don't hesitate to use the Veterans Crisis Line by either calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or by texting 838255, or by visiting www.VeteransCrisisline.net. This 24/7 confidential service is for all veterans, all service members, National Guard and Reserve, their family members, and their friends.

Amy Donaldson-Brass
We Happy Few is a production of the loud mouth project

About the author, Jason

Jason is an Air Force and Army veteran. His goal is to inspire other veterans, their family and friends to share their stories. Working as a volunteer with Veteran Service Organizations has given him insight into some of the struggles facing the men and women who serve. Jason has been married for over 25 years and earned a degree in History with a focus on the U.S. Military.

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