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It was the day before THAT day

There was a time before we surrendered our shoes at airport security. These three lives remind us how much our world has changed forever, if not for better.

By JOHN BARRY
Published September 10, 2006


Timothy McVeigh had been executed. Washington intern Chandra Levy had vanished, leaving her congressman lover to face the tabloids. The words "stem cell" had newly entered the popular lexicon. "Dotcom millionaire" was making its exit. Sharks were chewing on Florida surfers.

That was 9/10/2001. Not much going on. Inside news passed for Page One news. No stories about airline passengers passing their shoes and shampoo over to bomb searchers. No stories about strange men who sought lessons in how to fly planes but not land them.

No stories on yellow alerts or orange alerts or interceptions of cryptic e-mails from Afghanistan. The St. Petersburg Times had just published a set of sleepy, summertime stories called "Someone's big day," about small, sweet moments in everyday life.

This is a story about small, sweet moments. All of them occurred just before 9/11. They involved three people leading lives that glided on tracks of stability and predictability. Each could look ahead and say, "This is how my life probably is going to turn out." They felt secure. They were one day away from being wrong about everything.

Lt. Col. David Peek

On 9/10, David Peek had just wrapped up a busy wildfire summer, providing fuel tankers and medical support for firefighters spread out around dry Lakeland. He'd also finished with the annual glass and antiquities show, hosted by the National Guard Armory in St. Petersburg for three decades. And sandwiched in between were the sundry cat shows, weddings and wrestling matches that used the big armory hall.

Back then, they didn't even lock the doors most days.

Peek, then 38, had been genial commander of the 53rd Support Battalion in St. Petersburg for a year. He had come from Florida State University, where he had been a professor of military science, a job he loved.

He owed a good life with his wife Jill and three children, Joshua, Andrew and Abigail, to ROTC. It had put him through college and helped pave the way toward a law degree, then a placid career in the Florida National Guard.

"I would have stayed at FSU teaching ROTC for the rest of my career," he says whimsically.

Peek said he and Jill were always aware that a war could take him from home, but "we had a feeling of being in a comfort zone. Very few Guard units were called up in the Gulf War. The Army had tripled in size during the Reagan years. The Guard seemed a very safe place to be."

On 9/11, he had been attending school at Fort Eustice, Va. Traffic into the base was backed up down the interstate highway. Every car was being searched. His flight home was cancelled.

Days later in St. Petersburg, he very suddenly had to provide 24-hour armed guards for the Port of Tampa, Tampa International Airport and the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Homestead. The antiquities show was canceled, the first time in 33 years. Wedding parties had to look elsewhere. They started locking the armory doors.

When the bombing in Afghanistan started, "that's when it really sank in," Peek says. In July 2005, he took his battalion to Kabul, where it remained for 12 months. The newly returned battalion is still unpacking its weapons.

Forty elected to stay on in Kabul for another tour.

"A lot of them had sold everything they owned and had nothing to come home to," Peek says.

He came home to a new job. In October, he leaves for St. Augustine, to direct recruiting for the Florida Guard.

He knows what he will he say to parents of recruits.

"I will tell them there is a chance - a chance - of going to war. I will tell them their sons and daughters will have the best equipment and will be led by citizen soldiers who have the same fears, concerns and priorities as they do."

One more thing Peek can tell them:

He brought his battalion home safely.

Troy Herr

Troy Herr, 40, still looks like a football player. He played while a kid in Pinellas Park, then in high school in Chiefland, and later at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. But deep in his heart, he was always a computer nerd. Just put him in front of a computer screen. Or let him watch Star Trek.

On 9/10, he worked for Nortel Networks in Tampa as an engineer. He had married Deborah, and had two sons, Trajan, then 4, and Drake, not quite 2. One weekend a month he pulled reservist duty for the Florida Air National Guard at MacDill Air Force Base. He loved the getaways with Guard buddies and access to sophisticated audio and video links to the farthest places on the planet. His weekend duty "felt more like video games," he says.

Herr had been trying to find his way for about a decade. College had been one long party. He worried about graduating with no real job skills. Where could a Trekkie combine sci-fi with a paycheck?

The Air Force was the answer. It promised to train him in electronics. He joined up in 1987. The Air Force sent him to school in Mississippi, then to MacDill during Desert Storm. After the war, he hopscotched from Turkey to Omaha, Neb.

By 1994, "I was getting homesick," he says. "I left the Air Force and came back to Tampa looking for a job." He got one at Nortel, then one of the many companies riding the dotcom boom.

By 1997 he was a married father, living in Brandon. He had joined the Florida Air National Guard. Patriotism wasn't a big part of the calculus. The extra pay and camaraderie were. The Guard conveniently assigned him to the 290th Joint Communication Support Squad at MacDill.

His life still felt like a game, and he was winning it.

"All that time in the back of my mind I thought, 'I'm just a reservist, a weekend warrior.' My top priority was my civilian job. This was a hobby."

Herr was at MacDill when the planes struck the towers. An officer told the Guardsmen, "You guys aren't going anywhere." He called his wife but all he could say was, "I don't know what's going on." For two nights, he slept in his office, then was sent home. No orders came that week.

They did soon enough.

By October, he was sitting in a tent crammed with audio and video gear in the desert of Qatar. The stuff in his tent formed an electronic lifeline between combat units in the Persian Gulf to commanders in the United States. He watched for blinking red lights and green lights on the circuit boards. Red was bad. Green was good.

"I was in that tent. It was night. I finally had time to think. I was sitting there, telling myself, 'This isn't a game anymore. This is as real as it gets. I have to do it right.' "

He now says it was the moment he grew up. "The military went from hobby to passion."

Six months later, Herr got home on leave. Deborah and his two sons were waiting at the airport. His baby boy Drake was not even 2. "He wouldn't come up to me. He hid behind his mother. That was the hardest. He didn't know me."

After Qatar, he spent a year in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the dotcom boom had busted, Nortel had left Tampa and taken his civilian job with him.

He didn't want his old life back anyway. Herr's a master sergeant, in charge of 15 people, and responsibility for their lives in war weighs on him. The only games he plays are with his boys as a coach of peewee football in Brandon.

Ramona Jubar Merritt

On 9/10/2001, Ramona Jubar Merritt reminded herself to "call Daddy tomorrow." Sept. 11 was his birthday. He would be 74.

For seven years she'd had her "dream job" as a victims' advocate for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. This was the job she'd spent years trying to get. She'd taken counseling courses in college. She'd worked as a volunteer in her hometown, Charleston, S.C., answering a hotline for People Against Rape.

Helping others came naturally to her. After her father's divorce, she had cooked and cleaned for him, taking care of three siblings. Her father had made a career out of the Air Force and ran the house like a flight squadron, everyone in exact formation. He didn't believe in microwave ovens or automatic dishwashers. She got to use the dishwasher only on Thanksgiving. Her father taught her to "never look at the sidewalk," always hold her head up. "That stuck with me," she says. It may be the reason she now tells wretched souls coming through jail doors, "You're worthy. You're no less than anyone else."

She finally rebelled by choosing the University of Florida over school in Charleston. But she was the same Ramona. "I was the one people went to in a crisis. My roommates and other young ladies came knocking; even my sisters would call from South Carolina just to get my advice."

Her job in Pinellas - assisting victims of every crime imaginable, from rape to robbery to spouse abuse - "was not a job, it was privilege. It was a privilege to be allowed to share people's trauma. I would have paid to do that work."

Still, as she heard more stories of misery, she noticed a change in herself, maybe a warning signal. "I had stopped watching the TV news. It was too real for me. I also stopped going to movies. The last thing I wanted to see on the screen was murder or rape. Reading police narratives every day does something to you."

On 9/11, Merritt knew she was going to New York. She was a member of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, which offers manpower to communities after major disasters. In those days, a major disaster usually was defined as a hurricane or wildfire.

Nothing could have prepared Merritt for what she saw when she and 10 others from the Sheriff's Office arrived at a refugee site in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from the vanished towers. There the families of the dead waited, seeking death certificates, lined up outside a trailer labeled "Death Trailer No. 5."

She worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. for eight days, assisting survivors, or the families of the dead. Her first was a Muslim widow whose husband never came home from his job in the towers. She had few answers for them. Her main job was listening.

After eight days, she scrawled an emotional farewell note on a wall at the site. "I will never forget," she wrote to families she'd met, "and I am a better person because of it."

When she got back, she refused to talk about it with anyone except with other members of the team.

Her silence was an act of respect, she says. "I felt it was sacred, what I had heard and seen."

A few months later, Merritt gave up victims' advocacy. She took a job supervising education programs for jail inmates.

"I don't know if 9/11 was part of that or not. I don't know."

John Barry can be reached at 727-892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.