9/11 leaves a life forever altered and a new purpose

September 11, 2013
Jill Chambers on flight to Iraq in 2007. (Courtesy of Jill Chambers)
Jill Chambers on a flight to Iraq in 2007. (Courtesy of Jill Chambers)

As memorial services around the nation mark the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, retired Army Col. Jill Chambers will not be in attendance, even though that day’s events, had a huge impact on her both professionally and personally.
Instead, she is in Huntsville, Ala., helping her husband of nine months, the country singer Michael Peterson, with a presentation at a high school.

But Chambers, 55, who now makes her home in Las Vegas, will carry out some private traditions. Every Sept. 11, she has phone conversations with Sgt. Andre Brown and Sgt. Tracy Lobo, who she was working with at the Pentagon on the day hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the huge military complex. “We became battle buddies that day in the midst of a nightmare situation,” Chambers said in a phone interview. Part of their responsibility was making sure that people at the Pentagon were evacuated, so they worked late into the night, repeatedly going back into the damaged building to make sure everyone was out. And they had to return the next day.

Another priority will be a telephone call from her daughter, Army Capt. Gwynn Miller, who is now serving in Afghanistan. Chambers vividly remembers returning home around 10 p.m. that night and seeing her daughter, who was then in high school.  “My daughter was sitting on the steps of our townhouse waiting, just waiting,” Chambers said. Miller makes it a point to call her mother every year on Sept. 11.

In 2001, Chambers was working for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and over an eight-year period, she served four different chairmen.

In 2007, Admiral Michael Mullen assigned her to conduct a study of issues related to wounded military personnel, especially post traumatic stress (she doesn’t call it a disorder) and traumatic brain injury. Chambers and her team spent 18 months traveling the country to hear the heart-breaking and distressing stories of service members who had returned from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What she found was that many service members suffered from post traumatic stress, but that they were reluctant to admit to it. Commanders had discouraged discussion because it might make the military look weak. “I realized this isn’t new news,” she said, “but we need to start talking about it.”

Chambers was instrumental in developing the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which provides training to enhance performance and increase resilience. In 2009, she retired from the military after 28 years so she could continue her work with post traumatic stress.

With all her work on the topic, it took years for Chambers to recognize that she was experiencing post traumatic stress. Although she had repeated nightmares about being chased by airplanes that were on fire, she said, she did not start to come to terms with that until 2008. She said she has made use of a number of non-pharmaceutical treatments for the condition, including biofeedback and guided imagery, and feels she is healthy now.

“I haven’t had a nightmare since August of 2009 – not one,” she said. “I can’t believe how healthy I’ve really gotten.”

She said a neurologist she has worked with told her she no longer exhibited the symptoms of post traumatic stress and had experienced “post traumatic growth.”

Now she spends her time working with her program This Able Vet, helping others with the techniques she says has helped her. Chambers said she had worked with about 80 individuals and is continuing to educate herself and spread information about what she has learned.

Sleep disturbances are a common symptom, she said, and working with guided imagery to help her sleep has had a beneficial effect for her and others.

Her work is mostly financed by what she called “my generous military pension,” but she did receive a $10,000 grant from MAKERS.com, which shines a spotlight on the accomplishments of women in a variety of fields.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 11, Chambers asks that Americans “remember the sacrifices of our service members who have deployed and have really been in harm’s way. They’re the ones who have been on the front lines and they have been for 12 years now.”

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Diana Reese · September 11, 2013