10_05_21_Carlton_1Suzanne CarltonIt’s the little things she remembers – each one still reducing her to tears.

The general who gave up his seat on the U.S. Army Human Resource Council for another candidate.

The colleague who drove her home the evening before.

The early morning conference call at the Pentagon.

The young officer coming into the room, passing her a 3 x 5 note card, and the world coming to a screeching halt as she read of the plane slamming into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We were on this 6:30 a.m. conference call and my boss was in Singapore at the time when the plane hit. We brought in a TV to see what was happening on CNN and then we called him to find a TV as well,’ said Suzanne Carlton, 68, who worked in Army Recruiting Outreach Connections. “He asked me if I thought it was an accident, so I looked on the TV at the blue skies and told him that I didn’t think so, and it was then that I saw the second plane and knew it wasn’t.”

The stunned staff continued the meeting after Carlton led them in prayer for the safety of those involved, and just 20 minutes later, a loud thud shook the building, sending the group scrambling for an exit.

Due to recent terrorism threats, the Pentagon was reinforced with bombproof glass doors that would lock when the threat was high to prevent terrorists from entering the building. But those same doors kept the Pentagon employees locked inside. 

“The security guards were on the other side and they couldn’t hear us, and if they could, they didn’t know how to open the doors,” Carlton said. “Finally, someone called to us and we ran down a stairwell and were able to get out through the exit near the Arlington Cemetery.”

As they walked to the corner, a large, black fireball of smoke billowed, a stark contrast against the vivid azure sky. At the time, Carlton assumed they had been bombed, for the enormous flames concealed the plane underneath.

“It was very surreal; I couldn’t imagine that this was happening,” she said. “None of our cell phones worked, and I was afraid to take the Metro back home for fear that it would be another target for terrorists. So I flagged down another officer who drove me to Falls Church where I found a payphone and called my husband Charlie to pick me up.”

Free documentary showings of ‘Beyond Belief’

Mount Mary College will be holding three free public showings of “Beyond Belief,” a documentary about two 9/11 widows who established “Beyond 9/11,” a non-profit group to help Afghan widows. The showings will be Friday, Sept. 9 at noon; Monday, Sept. 12 at 3 p.m.; and Friday, Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. at Gerhardinger Center, Room 109 at the college, 2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee. The documentary will also be shown Friday, Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, 13105 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, the college is sponsoring a luncheon with Susan Retik who is featured in the documentary, at 11:30 a.m. at the Pfister Hotel. Tickets are $50 each and are available by calling: (414) 256-1210 online.

The days that followed brought confusion, loss and disbelief to Carlton, who learned her close friend, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into his office on the west side of the Pentagon.

Also in Maude’s office was the colleague who drove her home the night before, Gerald Fisher, affectionately known as “Geep” to his friends.

“It was so very hard to lose these good men and dear friends,” said Carlton. “For the next few days, I wandered around the Pentagon hugging people, trying to see who was there and who wasn’t. I was afraid to call anyone on the phone for fear that they weren’t here any longer.”

Transfixed in a cloud of disbelief, Carlton didn’t know how to overcome the anguish that robbed the country of so many lives and the loss of the sense of security. The turning point for Carlton came a month later on the site of the Pentagon, when President and Mrs. George W. Bush, and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld spoke at a memorial service.

“We were all given flags and sang hymns and songs, and the day was crystal clear, just like the day of the attacks,” explained Carlton. “Everyone was crying – the president, Mrs. Bush, everyone – but throughout the service, they gave us hope and it purged the sadness. We all left there that day feeling good about our country, and what they have done for our people and the Pentagon. It was a real turning point.”

Carlton continued on with military life, picking up the pieces and working for another 18 months before retiring on her birthday in January 2003. She and her husband moved to Pinehurst, N.C. to enjoy retirement and spend time with their three children and growing cluster of grandchildren.

While retirement was in the plan, Carlton, a 1964 graduate of Mount Mary College, quickly realized that she was not the type to play golf all day. As the wife of a retired career Army officer, she understood the difficulties the transient lifestyle had on the children, and after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, wanted to help children in her community adjust to living a military life.   

“We saw the problem when our middle child, Dawn, had to move with us when my husband was transferred to another location,” she said. “Here Dawn was trying to get into good colleges, but her transcripts were not consistent from school to school. Some schools didn’t accept accelerated classes, some required state history classes in each state, and because of this, Dawn’s GPA appeared lower and her class ranking dropped just because we moved. Finally, the schools agreed to write a letter to put in with her college applications to explain this unique situation.”

With so many children in the school system in Moore County, where they live, Carlton wanted to find a way to help them to adapt to the changes involved with frequent relocation, separation anxiety associated with the frequent deployment of parents to war torn areas of the world, and parents returning home injured or deceased.

“These issues escalated after 9/11 and this lifestyle became the new normal for these kids,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to help build understanding and support in these communities so the kids know there are people who care about them and want to help.”

A longtime member of Kiwanis International, Carlton knew that Kiwanis was all about helping children. She approached her club to sponsor a membership to Military Child Education Coalition for the Moore County Schools, a group she had learned that was active in Texas. Through their sponsorship, a training seminar hosted by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) http://www.militarychild.org/ offered seminars to the school at no cost, to train staff in supporting the transitioning military student.

The group works to develop communication and networking with the students and school districts across the country, develop procedures to support students who are dealing with frustration and anxieties, and to support children in their frequent moves.

“We have several thousand children in our school districts and there wasn’t much help for them – in fact, there was nothing on the agenda to accommodate or provide support for them,” she said. “But the training symposiums were wonderful in teaching the schools how to counsel students, detect signs of problems and positively handle situations and deal with the fear of the unknown for them.”

The programs are growing as they teach children how to be resilient in difficult situations. Because of her work in Kiwanis and in the MCEC, Carlton has traveled to several states to promote the support of the program.

“This training dealt with why resilience is important in this world, and not just with children of the military,” said Carlton. “We have many stresses in the world, such as economic, hurricanes, and many other stresses in the world. It is good training for anyone.”

In addition to her work with MCEC, Carlton, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Pinehurst, and her husband are involved in tutoring Hispanic children and bringing medical and nutritional supplies to some of the poorest areas in Moore County. While much of their free time is devoted to helping others, neither would have it any other way.

“I think giving back is just the essence of who I am and how I was raised,” said Carlton, choking back tears. “I was brought up in Catholic schools and this mission of social justice and taking care of people comes natural to being Catholic and following Jesus’ example to look out for the poor and meek. I have always had an inclination to do this and really enjoy helping other people.”