THE BLOG

Pipes, Drums and the Endless Funeral Procession

03/24/2015 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Then I called my men to follow me knowing well that the view was dim
Though tired and worn, how they fought all morn' as time was closing in
And my heart was sad though sore with pride for brave lads all were they
As the angels fly, how they climbed so high on the dawning of the day

But the edge is moving nearer now inside the fading sun
And calling, calling out to them my brothers, one by one
But only dusty silence sounds the ashes float away
As the twilight ends and the night descends 'til the dawning of the day

-- The Dawning of the Day by Mary Fahl

The solemn sounds of drums and bagpipes filled a quiet neighborhood in Staten Island New York last week as hundreds of firefighters, police officers, family members and friends lined the street to give way to the funeral procession for one of my heroes and cherished friend, FDNY Captain John Graziano.

John was 63-years-old, a loving husband, father, and grandfather, and a proud 26-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department. To many John was known by his nickname "Big Dog", but to our family he was known as "Smooth Daddy", a nickname given to him by my fiancé Sergio, who gave his life on September 11 with six other men from their firehouse, Engine 280/Ladder132.

In the year following the attacks on September 11, I attended too many of the 346* firefighter funerals and memorial services to count, including those for the men from Engine 280/Ladder 132, and Sergio's assigned company, Engine 4/Ladder 15, which lost thirteen more men. It was déjà vu time and again, with every tap on the drum, every heart wrenching note on the bagpipe, every firetruck, funeral caisson, and limousine carrying the family of the fallen. It wasn't until the final funeral of Firefighter Michael Ragusa on September 8, 2003, that the FDNY community was able to gain some sense of closure, knowing all of the services for the firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11 had come to an end.

How devastatingly wrong we were.

Over 13-and-a-half years later, the drums are still drumming, the pipes are still wailing, and the bugles are still playing "Taps" for more and more heroes because of that same horrific day of our world's history. Captain John Graziano, who lost his war against pancreatic cancer, is just one of over 1,700 first responders, recovery workers and neighborhood residents who have died because of illnesses caused by the toxic air at Ground Zero in the months following the attacks. On September 11, John was a Lieutenant in Ladder 132 and spent countless hours during many months on the pile alongside thousands of other first responders and recovery workers in the rescue and recovery efforts. The heartbreak over his loss is made more profound by the sadness in knowing he joins two other men from the same firehouse who were also laid to rest because of 9/11 related cancer, Firefighter Sean McCarthy and Lieutenant Keith Loughlin.

The FDNY is not the only agency suffering from this post-traumatic reality. The NYPD has had more officers die from 9/11 related illnesses than those who have died in the attacks. Thousands of everyday heroes: construction and sanitation workers, Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, and others who were not affiliated with any particular agency but showed up to help, have been affected by 9/11 illness. Over 3,600 now have cancer, as certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). And the funeral procession will march on, and on, and on, through the dark streets of despair and sorrow.

If ever there was a light in the midst of so much ongoing tragedy, it came in the form of the James Zadroga Health & Compensation Act. The bill passed through Congress with the help of the unrelenting advocacy of a group of people dedicated to fulfilling our nation's promise to "never forget", including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D- NY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), Congressman Peter King (R-NY), and John Feal of the Fealgood Foundation. It was signed into law by President Obama in 2011 and ensures that all who are affected by 9/11 related illnesses will get the health coverage and financial compensation they need and deserve. Over 30,000 first responders, survivors, area residents and recovery workers who have limited or no resources for paying for their costly medical treatments and replacing their loss of income are receiving the help they need.

Unfortunately, that light is beginning to dim as the James Zadroga Act is set to expire in 2016. Last August, shortly after Keith Loughlin's passing, John and I discussed the law and he expressed his dismay about the looming expiration. He was concerned that so many people were just starting to get sick and would not be taken care of.

At John's funeral, one of his sons and two of his closest friends delivered emotional eulogies which eloquently painted a picture of the big bear of a man who was all heart with an incredible sense of humor, who would go out of his way to make his family and friends feel the love and joy of life, while honoring his call to serve and protect humanity. They spoke about John's courage and his determination to beat his pancreatic cancer, even when he knew the odds were against him.

One friend spoke about the toll the first round of chemo took on John, draining him physically to the point where he could barely get up. Yet in spite of his exhaustion, John insisted on helping his friend who was overwhelmed with the work of renovating his two daughters' houses. The friend explained how he planned to give John small things to do while seating him in front of the television so he wouldn't exert himself. He then told us through tears about John's selflessness, even through his suffering, as he refused to do the small things and instead hung up sheet rock to take some of the burden off of his friend. It is this kind of selflessness Captain John "Smooth Daddy" Graziano can inspire in all of us.

In the coming weeks, The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act will be reintroduced to Congress and thousands of lives across the nation are depending on its passage. For these men and women who have done so much for us, we owe it to them to show our support in making it happen by urging our legislators to do the right thing. We may be powerless to completely stop the endless funeral procession, but we can certainly make a difference in ensuring a good quality of life for these heroes.

Please visit Citizens for the Extension of The James Zadroga Act for more information on how you can show our heroes they will never be forgotten.

*Much of history has written 343 for the number of active-duty FDNY firefighters who gave their lives on September 11th, but I am also including the 3 retired heroes who answered the call that day.