That day, things were much the same in Tracy as they were across the country. Life ground to a halt, as we were transfixed by the images of the Twin Towers falling, the Pentagon burning, fellow Americans dying in the worst attack on U.S. soil in 60 years.
Whether overseas, like our publisher emeritus Sam Matthews, or right here in town, Tracyites were stunned.
Capt. Jay Fishburn, a teacher and coach at Tracy High School, had returned to the States hours earlier from a tour with the Army Reserves in the Balkans. He and his fellow soldiers watched the World Trade Center collapse from a TV at a Fort Benning Burger King.
“I called my wife and said, “I don’t think we’re coming home,” he recalled.
It would be another week before Fishburn rejoined his family in Tracy. But he returned to a place scarred by what it had seen.
Spilled soap at a local fast-food joint required the hazmat team, as on-edge citizens feared it could be anthrax. The Tracy Defense Depot was made more secure, with barricades at the entrances on Chrisman Road — and 25-year employee Dean Trevino said the depot is still on guard today: “We’re on a high alert.”
But the place Fishburn returned to was also resilient. There were prayer groups, vigils, blood drives and the Stars and Stripes flying from homes, cars and pretty much any place a flag could be attached.
There was a sense of community amidst the shock.
In fact, in trying to unearth what’s changed in Tracy since Sept. 11, 2001, that word is one that popped up time and again — community. It’s community that has defined Tracy’s reaction in the days and years following those terrible attacks.
That’s in spite of, or perhaps because of, the burden Tracy and its families have shouldered since that day 10 years ago.
It’s a burden that can be seen and felt many places, but maybe nowhere so keenly as at the Tracy War Memorial, a solemn monument near City Hall.
In the wars that were launched as a response to Sept. 11, Tracy has seen several sons die in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their names — Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, Staff Sgt. Steven Bridges, Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, Pfc. Jesse Martinez, Lance Cpl. Brandon Dewey, Sgt. 1st Class Tung Nguyen, Staff Sgt. Daniel Hansen and, as of this Veterans Day, Staff Sgt. David Senft — are forever etched into the memorial. (Two others with local ties, Pfc. Bruce Salazar Jr. and Sgt. Kyle Dayton, are absent.)
It’s the job of John Treantos, a former U.S. Marine, commander of the local American Legion and president of the Tracy War Memorial Association, to ensure their names aren’t forgotten.
“It’s a job that has to be done, and it’s a job I’m highly privileged to do,” Treantos said. “You hope that there will be no more names on the memorial, but if you do, you do it the right way, with dignity and honor.”
Julia Conover’s son, Lance Cpl. Dewey, has a spot on that hallowed black granite. His death was hard on her family, but she said the support from neighbors and strangers alike helped them cope.
“Tracy has been so good to us,” she said, recalling her son’s place on the memorial and the street the city named for him, an honor bestowed on several others who have died in the wars of the past 10 years.
“I think Tracy is so supportive. When we brought Brandon home, people were lined up…,” she said, choking up at the memory.
That support is seen in more places than the memorial, though. It’s in meals bought for military members at local restaurants, in the fire department stringing Christmas lights for a discharged soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, in a service club defending a veteran whose service animal was kicked out of the local DMV, in the city hanging downtown banners with the names of residents serving in the military. In everyday thank-yous.
“In fact, as a veteran, because I have a Marines emblem on my car, people will leave notes on the windshield: ‘Thank you for your service,’” Treantos said.
“I think the nation learned a lot from Vietnam,” Fishburn said, when returning service members were sometimes reviled for their role in a war that lost public favor.
Fishburn has seen the modern support firsthand. The 16-year Army reservist — who spent one tour in Iraq beginning in 2003, right when the U.S. invaded — said it’s been incredible.
“They were awesome. It was unbelievable. … We were treated like heroes,” he said. “Tracy’s always been real supportive of the military. … Tracy, as a community, has been really good to me.”
He said he was especially lucky to be a staff member at Tracy High — he had a place when he returned from Iraq in 2004, and his fellow coaches even sent game film for the freshman football coach to review while in the sandbox.
“The staff here at Tracy High was awesome.”
He, like many overseas military members with Tracy roots, wasn’t forgotten. That’s thanks in no small measure to Tracy Military Moms, a group started by Conover, Elaine Pulliam and Marilyn Chorley that sends care packages to local service members.
Chorley, whose son enlisted following Sept. 11, said members support one another through the sleepless nights that go with having a loved one in harm’s way.
“It seems so long ago, because we’ve been through so much. We’ve had hundreds of kids from Tracy (deployed),” she said, commenting on the town’s casualties in the wars. “That’s a lot of kids from one town.”
She agreed that the people in Tracy have been exemplary — “I’ve had many people call me and ask ‘How can we help?” … That’s what impresses us the most” — but lamented the decline of visible patriotism since 2001, a time when flags fluttered everywhere and people seemed more united.
“People just go about their lives until something happens,” she said.
Though the flags might have disappeared, the “something” that shocked Tracy and the rest of America 10 years ago is still ongoing, in a way. Soldiers are still overseas, airports are still heavily guarded and barricades remain outside of the Tracy Defense Depot.
But Chorley, like so many others, holds out hope that an ending is not impossible.
“We just keep praying that all this will end, and we can take down the banners on Central Avenue,” Chorley said. “Until then, we just keep going.”
• Second Thoughts is an opinion column by Jon Mendelson. To share your thoughts, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.