Valecia "Chee Chee" Parker remains a shadow of the woman she was on Sept. 11, 2001 -- a civilian employee in Army personnel management, a buff, competitive bodybuilder.
She was on the phone in her Pentagon office when the world exploded that flawless morning three years ago, she was buried under a jumble of desks in her Pentagon office. A co-worker heard her pleading, "Jesus, help me! Help me, Jesus!" searched through the rubble and dragged her out.
Parker was soaked with jet fuel that made her legs feel on fire. Her skin eventually healed without grafts. Yet her other injuries -- neck, back, shoulder, head -- proved more tenacious. They left her with significant memory lapses. She had to relearn how to use her keyboard. She stumbled through the steps of forwarding a telephone call.
When it became apparent that she could not resume her job, Parker was reassigned to a Pentagon office where she folded boxes and was told to keep the place tidy. She left after overhearing another employee complain that she made things messier and had to be treated like a child.
Perhaps much of the country has moved on. But for people such as Parker, moving on is still a daily, heart-aching effort. On the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, their healing is far from over.
This they share not only with the families of the 184 men, women and children who died at the Pentagon, but also with many of the others left behind -- co-workers who escaped through the flames, as well as the firefighters and paramedics who helped save them.
Even some rescuers' families struggle. One firefighter's daughter routinely cries when her father gets ready for his shift.
"I know there are people out there suffering," said Capt. Mike Staples of the Arlington County Fire Department.
Everyday things can trigger their memories. The scream of sirens. A plane low overhead. The fusty odor of wet drywall. And suddenly, said April Gallop, "it's like you're there all over again."
Trapped again in a collapsed office in the Pentagon, choking on the thick, roiling blackness, searching desperately for a way out.
"You walk away," she explained, "but you become the walking wounded."
Though the aftermath of 9/11 has repeatedly revealed human resilience, fault lines have become more apparent. Some employees have not come back because their bodies and psyches were so badly damaged. Others tried but ultimately had to surrender to their new reality.
Parker now gets by on half her former salary through worker's compensation. She sees a speech therapist, a neurologist, an ophthalmologist and a psychiatrist. She downs four medications a day. A survivors fund bought her a gym membership and paid for her to train as an exercise instructor. She has not had the strength to start.
Her Landover townhouse reveals the limits of her reconfigured life. Along one wall are boxes of Avon products that she has tried to sell to her neighbors. Parker opens the door to a hall closet-turned-pantry. It is stacked with jars of baby food, dried fruit and other food that needs no cooking.
At 52, she can handle shopping in a convenience store, but she cannot stand the rigors of walking and choosing from the vast selection at a supermarket. Migraines overtake her every afternoon.
"I used to have a beautiful home, lots of friends, the ability to think fast on my feet and a good memory," she said. "I know that because my mom and dad told me."
Even among those whose workday lives appear to have returned to normal, there are lingering undercurrents of depression and trauma. Some are civilians, some military. And some are the men and women of the Arlington fire department.
For the Arlington firefighters who for nearly two grueling weeks led the rescue and recovery efforts at the Pentagon, the world after Sept. 11 will never really be the same. They may not have lost any of their own that day, but the 334 New York firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center weigh heavily on their minds. They know what could have happened here. It tested them in ways few could have imagined.
"9/11 was a plane crash, a building collapse, a fire and a terrorist attack all in one," said Dodie Gill, who runs the county's highly praised employee assistance program and has worked closely with its firefighters since Day One.
A few have paid a heavy price for what they did and saw -- haunted especially by the images of severed body parts, of faces literally peeled away like masks by an intensity of heat that even veterans had not felt before.
"We deal with death and destruction all the time, but this was a different thing," Staples said.
So was the degree of deeply strained or severed marriages, panic that twice sent one firefighter into heart afibrillation, an attempted suicide and, at last count, a dozen early retirements provoked by the emotional aftershocks.
Only days ago, Staples, who wears dual hats as safety officer and union leader, put forward claims for stress-related disabilities for additional co-workers. He confesses to worrying about several more individuals he wishes would seek help, as does the boss, Chief James Schwartz.
"We're trying to get some of this stuff out in the open," Schwartz said. Especially before another terrorist act, which the chief is certain his department will face. "There are a number of things that keep me up at night," he said. "Where we are in the world and what that means for this organization is foremost among them."
The firefighters also wonder what other problems may be on the horizon.
They think about the possible parallels to New York, where the label of "World Trade Center cough" refers to a cluster of major respiratory problems afflicting hundreds of firefighters since 2001. Crews labored inside and outside the Pentagon in a stew of burning fuel, decaying human remains, dust, asbestos and silicon particles and no one knows what else.
Mike Beall might be the miner's canary. The 45-year-old firefighter soon will see a pulmonologist for a persistent, phlegmy cough that he began noticing not long before the first Pentagon anniversary. Right here, he motions on his chest. "Like I've got water on my lungs."
It's not gotten that much worse, but it's not gone away either. It's been followed by wheezing, then a touch of bronchitis, and of late Beall has been coughing up gunk that looks like white cotton candy.
"This stupid thing I got," Beall calls the cough for now. "I'm not trying to make a big deal of it," he said, though he remembers the hours he spent hauling shoring material into the debris-littered Pentagon. He wore protective gear, but in between many shifts he often was within 200 feet of the building, with whatever exposure that meant.
His mind already has turned over such words as emphysema, chronic pulmonary disease and cancer. "I'm anxious to find out what it is," he said.
Given worries that some health issues could take years to surface, the department hopes to push a bill in the Virginia legislature next year that would extend workers' statute of limitations for 9/11-related claims. "We're just concerned about the long-term effects," Staples said.
April Gallop looks only to the here and now.
In January 2003, she left the Army. She lives with her son, Elisha, who survived with head injuries that have caused developmental delays. She walks with a cane because of a spinal misalignment, but her third-floor Woodbridge apartment cannot be retrofitted for a mechanized lift. Every step, she said, is slow and painful. At 33, she takes cortisone shots and swallows up to 10 tablets a day.
But no drug wards off her flashbacks, when she sees herself at her Pentagon desk three years ago, on her first day back from maternity leave.
Little Elisha was in the stroller beside her. Gallop had just pushed the button to start her computer when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, blowing her across the room.
For a moment, Gallop said, she thought she had died and gone to hell. Then she heard her son crying. She couldn't imagine babies condemned to hell, so she realized they were alive.
When Elisha cries these days the same way he did when he was trapped under the debris, it all comes back. If she drives past an airport and smells jet fuel, it all comes back. She hears her injured co-workers calling for help. She sees the shards of metal, the broken furniture and shattered lights jutting dangerously every which way. It feels . . . so real.
"You live with it, almost every day," Gallop said. "You carry it with you."