When Dave Walker talks about the time he spent at Ground Zero in 2001, he has to pause from time to time -- to clear his throat, try and stop a coughing attack or allow his escalating heartbeat to quiet down a little. Although he tries to hide it, the physical and emotional toll of breathing in toxic dust air and recovering bodies and body parts for those 12 days are still evident.
As a police chaplain, death and tragedy are familiar terrain for Walker and helping others in crisis is what he does best, so when he was asked if he'd volunteer to go to Ground Zero with a national Critical Incident Stress Management team after the attacks on the World Trade Center, he didn't hesitate. Friends from church bought him a cellphone and paid for the service, officers from the Campbell Police Department where he serves as volunteer chaplain bought him a uniform, and the Campbell City Council voted a resolution to send him to Ground Zero as an emissary of the city. Grateful for the support from his community, he left his home in California for the devastation in New York.
Since then Walker has suffered from chronic, life-threatening respiratory illness as a result of his work at Ground Zero. He's had to fight for the medicines that keep him breathing, and is only now starting to receive compensation from a class-action lawsuit he filed along with approximately 10,000 other clean-up workers who were not provided adequate respiratory equipment at Ground Zero.
I first met Walker about four years ago at a meeting of the California Statewide Collaborative for our Veterans and Families, a diverse group that supports Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
A large, soft-spoken man with a lively sense of humor, he has a reputation in the community for being someone you can count on in the bleakest of situations -- when others you thought you could count on have fled.
Around the time I met him, Walker was helping the Hardy family. Warren Hardy had returned from Iraq with a brain injury, his wife Gina was about to give birth to triplets and the family was on the verge of becoming homeless. Walker was raising funds, delivering mega boxes of diapers and just being there for them in that calm, comforting way he has.
As Mary Ellen Salzano, founder of the California Statewide Collaborative, says,
"Dave understands suffering and he responds to it in a way that most people are unable to."
Perhaps this is because Walker, who is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, has suffered so much himself: years ago he went through a period when his post traumatic stress was so debilitating that he started drinking heavily, became homeless and considered suicide.
Now, in addition to being a police chaplain, he is part of a part of a transition team for severely wounded veterans, an advisor to the Santa Clara County Veterans Court and an instructor for the Army National Guard. Despite the ongoing struggles with his health, Walker has spent the past few years developing a training program for police officers so they can learn how to minimize conflict when interacting with combat veterans. Originally called Cops and Vets, it was renamed Veteran Law Enforcement Interaction by the State of California's Peace Officers Standards in Training when they certified it for continuing education for law enforcement officers. With the passage of SB 1296 it will be mandated for all law enforcement officers in the state of California.
What does a police chaplain do? I once asked him.
"Homicides, suicides, drowning, crib death, and the list goes on," he replied. "When it gets really ugly, cops will call a chaplain."
As a chaplain he provides comfort and support to all who need it: the parents of a teenager who hangs herself, the dispatcher at the police station who receives the call from the parents and the police officers who arrive on the scene of the tragedy.
The hardest calls involve children. During his ninth and last year at the San Jose Police Department he was called out to fourteen separate fatalities involving children, including an attempted murder of a toddler by his father and several suicides. The intensity and emotional toll of that year prompted him to leave San Jose PD and become a volunteer chaplain at Campbell Police Department.
"While I gave up a salary at San Jose I thought that at least I could reclaim my sanity. Campbell was quieter and there were fewer tragedies to deal with. It was a move I should have made years before. Campbell feels like family."
But eleven months later the World Trade Center came under attack and Walker deployed to New York, to a tragedy of unfathomable proportions.
He remembers arriving at Ground Zero and thinking it looked like footage of a bombed out city in World War II. The Port Authority Police Benevolent Association had a makeshift barbecue set up next to a tent, where they cooked hotdogs and had some safety equipment available for the cleanup workers. But there was no instruction how to use the respirators or on how long they were good for.
"A guy came in and just basically said, 'respirators and stuff are over there,' and that was it... I tried to wear my respirator whenever I could, but of course I'd take it off to do a mini-memorial service. And then there were times when it would get knocked loose when I was underground and there wasn't enough room to get my hands up to my face to replace the damn thing," he says.
Although he wore his respirator as much as possible -- he still has a faint mark on the bridge of his nose from its imprint -- he'd sometimes get back to the hotel and realize that the creases that ran from the sides of his nose to his mouth would be caked with thick, dark dust. "I'd be sucking in debris, probably all shift, and didn't even realize it."
As a chaplain in a five-man team, Walker worked with the Port Authority Police and firefighters, going underground or into the debris and assisting with recovering bodies and body parts. Whenever bodies were found he would help bag them, put them in a carrier, then say a prayer before taking them to ground level. Once at ground level he'd conduct a mini-memorial service, then escort the remains to a temporary morgue, which consisted of two tents set end to end.
"And in there we're finding pieces of bodies, you know, feet and hands, fingers, bones, and we'd try to sort them out. Then we'd have to rebag everything and send them up to Bellevue hospital where they did the DNA testing and that kind of thing...." His voice fades. "It's the stuff that nightmares are made of."
Walker's wife Holly, a special education teacher, remembers his phone call to her that first night. "I don't think he was in any way prepared for the level of destruction... He told me that firefighters and police officers had just gotten under a stairwell and found about 20 bodies. When he started talking about all the body parts, it hit me. I thought, oh my gosh, he's seeing all this. I thought, he's been there before -- in Vietnam."
Walker served two heavy combat tours in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. On his first deployment six of his friends were killed and he watched four of them die in front of him. When he returned home injured from his second tour where he was part of a Special Forces unit, he was hospitalized for a month in the Sepulveda VA. Although the hospital was less than nine miles from his family, nobody came to visit -- except for his pastor and a friend named Suzette. He was 22 years old.
The life-giving impact of his pastor's visit and the comfort he received from his chaplain in the madness of Vietnam are what eventually led him to become a chaplain himself.
At Ground Zero, Walker's team was supposed to work 12-hour shifts but towards the end of the shift they'd often find more bodies and the work would continue. The most sleep he ever got a night was about four hours. Usually, not more than two.
One thing that makes him smile is remembering the constant requests of police and firefighters to bless their St. Michael pendants. Although he's a Presbyterian minister he had to wear the cleric's reverse collar on site to identify him as a chaplain, so he always let them know that although he might have looked like a Catholic priest, he wasn't -- just in case they wanted the real thing.
"And they'd hand you over their St. Michael with their eyes wide open, like okay, I'm going to let you pray over this but I'm not sure what's going to happen..."
Walker kept little scraps of paper and a pencil in his pocket and he'd jot down notes when he had time. He wrote about the firefighters, how they'd keep on going, refusing to take a break.
"We'd watch them working literally until they dropped. Two guys would grab another by the belt and drag him up and he'd sit there and catch his breath, and then ten minutes later he'd be back there, digging through the debris, trying to dig people out."
He wrote about celebrities like Caroline Kennedy and Robin Williams, who immediately wanted to roll their sleeves up and help, once they witnessed the devastation. And he wrote about Teddy Bear Wall, where families of the dead would leave notes or teddy bears in memory of a loved one. It was there that he left a prayer written on a piece of wood, in memory of his nephew's sister-in-law who was on the 104th floor of one of the Twin Towers when the plane hit. They would later identify her by DNA taken from her thigh bone.
Passed a donut store with the donuts still on their trays, he wrote on one of his scraps, referring to a New York moment frozen in time when the planes hit the towers.
Holly was right: the mud and smoke and burning fires and lack of sleep and smell of burning and diesel fuel and death ricocheted him back to Vietnam. One day he had a "hard flashback."
"When I was in Vietnam I used to do a lot of recon work, and next thing you know I was back in the bush, reconning a vill again. And then I heard this soft voice and there was my partner, Don, asking me if I was okay."
Walker doesn't remember much about coming home after his 12 days on site, except that his clothes smelled acrid and sooty because he hadn't been able to get them cleaned. One of the first things Holly noticed was his backpack: its bright blue color had been eaten away by acid. "I realized that was the stuff he'd been inhaling. He had a terrible cough and within a very short time he couldn't walk half a block without becoming winded."
"We all had 'the cough' on site, but we thought it was just the flu going around. We didn't realize how serious it was until later," says Walker.
In the team of five he served with at Ground Zero, one man died the day after the site was shut down after being there for four months, another had a tracheotomy and Walker has to take four medications a day so he can keep breathing. The toxic soup he'd been absorbing came from about a million tons of pulverized concrete, glass, asbestos, PCBs, lead and hundreds of chemicals.
Coming back from Ground Zero was almost like returning to the civilian world after combat, Walker says. "You're in this hellish surreal world and then suddenly you're back in your kitchen."
And just like after Vietnam, the nightmares and flashbacks began.
"The last guy we brought out from the Twin Towers, I'd have these dreams he'd be at my front door, wanting in. I knew him, because unlike so many others he was whole, not in pieces."
By January of 2002 he was unable to walk down the street without becoming breathless. In June of 2002 he had surgery for prostate cancer and for the next two years his health was so fragile that he wasn't able to work. He also had high blood pressure and stomach irritation that he believes was caused from the debris in the air he swallowed at Ground Zero.
Captain Dave Carmichael of the Campbell Police Department says that although he does not know the details of the class action lawsuit, he believes Walker deserves any compensation that is owed to him.
"He's been a tremendous asset to the City of Campbell as a volunteer chaplain. He's that rare kind of person who's willing to get his hands dirty. When there's a tragic event it affects us all and Dave takes that burden off our shoulders."
He recalled a night when the family of a suicide victim was inconsolable and how he, a sergeant at the time, was at a loss for words. "Then Dave arrived and started working his magic. He stayed in contact with that family for a long time. That's what he does."
Walker feels a little awkward when people refer to him as a hero. He likes watching Survivor, hunting in Wyoming with his son Cal and surprising his wife with romantic getaways -- when his lungs "aren't acting up."
On June 30, 2008, while on vacation with Holly, he started to gasp for air in the in the kitchen of their camper. He tried telling her he couldn't breathe but he couldn't get enough air to say the words. It turned out that she'd been boiling potable water and the chlorine in the air triggered this reaction. He survived, but the fear of having something like this happen again is always with him.
Walker tells me that each morning, when he lines up his medications -- one for high blood pressure, one for his stomach and the four medications that keep him breathing -- he reflects on his last mini-memorial service at Ground Zero. It was for the firefighter who was so beloved by his men, the one who still sometimes tries pushing through the screen door of his nightmares. Walker made a promise to the rescue workers at Ground Zero that night:
"I will tell of the love, honor, dedication, courage and commitment that I have seen, and the men and women who prefer to be called family rather than heroes. I am honored that I was invited to take part in such a daunting task, and humbled to have stood in the presence of these survivors, and to have worked alongside you."