FDNY chief pays tribute at new War on Terrorism memorial
Five hours before the memorial was dedicated, Leonard went into the site by himself, saying he wanted to be along with his thoughts as he digested it
By Chuck Williams
FORT BENNING, Ga. — Before dawn Monday morning, the chief of the Fire Department of New York City was walking alone through a new memorial on the edge of Fort Benning.
It was an odd place for the top firefighter in the nation's largest city to start his work week, but James Leonard said there was no other place he would rather be.
The new memorial to the Global War on Terrorism was dedicated late Monday morning at the National Infantry Museum. At the forefront of the memorial with the names of 6,915 U.S. service members who have died since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, is a portion of a beam from the north tower.
At 6 a.m., five hours before the memorial was dedicated, Leonard went into the site by himself, saying he wanted to be along with his thoughts as he digested it.
"It was what we need to do," Leonard said of memorials. "In New York City, we use two words that are very important, 'Never forget.' You can say that is what this memorial is about. We have to honor the people who sacrificed everything."
The section of beam out of the World Trade Center's North Tower is a critical element in the memorial and it is held up by two square concrete posts that symbolize the twin towers. But Leonard looked past the steel and toward the 7-foot- bronze sculptures of nine Army Infantrymen on patrol.
"I loved seeing that Infantry squad there, and they are larger than life," Leonard said. "When I saw that, metaphorically, soldiers should be larger than life. That was the first thing, but the second thing was how they were protecting that steel."
Leonard was assigned to a station in lower Manhattan survived on 9-11 because he was not on duty. Every one he worked with that on was on duty, died that day, he said.
He was struck by the 6,915 names etched in granite.
"Every name, that's a family, it is not just a name," Leonard said. "It is a person, a life lost, a friend. Each one of those names is probably touching a hundred people, a thousand people. And that is what we can never forget that they are not just names on a wall They are individual people who gave all and it's our duty to always remember."
And no one is more appreciative of the military response to the 9-11 attacks than New York City firefighters, Leonard said. There were 343 firefighters and paramedics killed that day.
"For us, 9-11 is extremely personal, extremely personal," Leonard said. "On one hand, the military got us the payback that we wanted. For us, we owe them eternal gratitude for what they did."
Leonard told a story of an informal ceremony that the FDNY holds every year as the sun sets on Sept. 11. One of the elements of what is an unofficial event is to thank service members.
"The speaker this year, said you know, 'This is kind of what happened. It was kind of like we were at the park and got beat up, and our big brother came down and settled the score. And that big brother is the U.S. military. Even firefighters need heroes and our heroes are the U.S. military."
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