December 4, 2020

Webster counselor, grad student deployed after Sept. 11 attacks

One month to the day that Gladys Smith started her new job at Webster University in the counseling and life development center, a group of extreme Islamists flew planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and an empty field in Pennsylvania. That day was Sept. 11, 2001. Smith, who joined the United States Navy in 1984, couldn’t have anticipated all the emotions she would feel.

“It was overwhelming — a true dichotomy,” Smith said. “On the one end, I knew people in the military, but on the other hand, I had my students here.”

Smith, who entered the U.S. Navy in 1984 and has spent the past nine years in the Navy reserves, sometimes joked with colleagues that nothing could happen that would call her back into service. She was wrong. In October 2001, Smith was called to Guam, a small island in the Pacific Ocean.

“They told us we had three days to get our things together,” Smith said. “It was such a short period. Before, it would be nine months (warning for a new deployment). It was a jolt to the system.”

After spending a few weeks training for weapons, security and medical procedures in Millington, Tenn., Smith arrived at Naval Base Guam. Smith is a Chief Petty Officer Hospital Coreman for the Navy, so she was performing jobs for troops similar to an emergency medical technician, while carrying out 12- to 14-hour guard duty.

Guam’s base was closed down before Smith and her troops arrived, but with the attacks in September bringing the national security threat level to the highest it had been in decades, the base opened again. Though the island is a vacation spot for the Japanese, Smith said U.S. troops were the only people she saw around Guam for almost six months.

“We had to be suspect of everything,” Smith said. “We had to remind ourselves to relax, and be alert only as much as we needed to be. We had to take care of each other. There was just so much unbelief. We had never been attacked to that degree. They could attack us here (Guam), they could attack there (America). We didn’t know, and the fear for civilians was the same.”

Smith spent nearly two years in Guam. She said that the experience was difficult, having to leave her family and job to start over across the sea. Her time in Guam has stayed with her, and Smith takes the lessons she learned and applies them to her counseling job at Webster.

“(A lot of people have) issues now related to some impact from 9/11,” Smith said. “You don’t have to be deployed abroad to be impacted. Here at Webster, we have so many campuses and military bases abroad, I get calls (from all over). It has been 10 years. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t changed. We’ve got to know how to accept each other, because so many countries are going through what we’ve gone through. It’s not over. 9/11 was the start of so many things – everyone was affected by it.”

K. Llewellyn McGhee, intern in the Counseling and Life Development center since August 2010, was affected more than most by the terrorist attacks that day. Lieutenant Colonel for the United States Army, McGhee spent 28 years as a chaplain in the military. He is now studying for a master’s of arts in counseling with an emphasis in marriage and family counseling at Webster. Four years after the Twin Towers collapsed, McGhee was deployed to “Mortaritaville”— Camp Anaconda, near Balad Airforce Base in northern Iraq.

“9/11 began a course for the military that has caused me to go to Iraq,” McGhee said. “I had been to Israel, but to go to Iraq and see the impact of war, of people dying and the effect of those deaths, that gave me a higher respect for life.”

On the day of the attacks, McGhee was working at Jefferson Barracks, with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors program. McGhee, the chaplain known as “Chappy,” came in to work that morning ready to help soldiers process their emotions about the attacks. That Tuesday morning, McGhee led the group in a prayer to ease the shock and confusion of the disaster.

“I remember offering up a sense of understanding, a sense of calm before reacting to it as we seek what will come next,” McGhee said. “For me, I wouldn’t say (I felt) fear—I didn’t think they would bomb St. Louis. But it showed me the depth of hatred someone had for America.”

Shortly after the attacks, McGhee got a call from Jefferson City, Mo., asking him to apply for a full-time chaplain position under the governor. This was a position McGhee had asked the state to consider adding twice before, but the events of Sept. 11 made the governor pay attention.

In September 2004, McGhee was called to serve near Baghdad, Iraq at Camp Anaconda. Camp Anaconda was the most mortared base in Iraq at that time. As a chaplain, McGhee was responsible for offering spiritual and religious services to over 36,000 troops with 36 ministry teams. He also went through a combat medicine course, in order to care for his soldiers on a holistic level.

In Iraq, McGhee witnessed the deaths of American soldiers, radical Islamists and innocent civilians. While overseas caring for U.S. troops, McGhee lost nine of his closest friends and family members. He came home in August 2006, to bury his mother on her birthday, which she shared with McGhee’s only son.

“It was bittersweet to be back home,” McGhee said. “I had to bury my mom, tell my son his grandmother had passed then have the funeral. It raised a question for me—how does care get given to a caregiver? How we give care has focused me to train people to take care of themselves (through a life legacy book and dvd program that helps people set up accessible wills and establish funeral preferences).”

McGhee’s religious belief, as a chaplain endorsed by the United Methodist Church, may seem a bit unorthodox to some, but the experience of deployment in Iraq has firmly shaped McGhee’s faith. Chaplains are required to serve all troops, regardless of their own denomination or beliefs. In turn, chaplains serve agnostics, Christians and Muslims alike.

“I believe in pluralism—being accepting of all religions,” McGhee said. “But, I have seen a lot of backlash for those (who follow) Islam. We have to raise awareness and understand that we’re not fighting against Islam, but radicals. Most religious faiths talk about peace and harmony, and war only when absolutely necessary.

“To me, I’ve come to believe that God created the world, and religion is man-made, and so man made religions to put dividers between people and races, and ethnicities. But, I think God is looking at something different. And I believe in the concept of heaven. I don’t believe there is going to be a divider wall in heaven to where all the Baptists will go and all the Pentecostals will go, and all the blacks will go, and all the whites will go. I think the criteria that God’s looking for is, ‘are you my child?’”

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