A Visit at Camp Unity: First Person Reflections

by Hannah Mack Lapp, November 4, 2001

The following article presents the author’s personal reflections of her September 24th trip to Camp Unity, the area near the Pentagon where investigators and search and recovery workers eat and take breaks from their work.

The autumn air blends humidity with the aroma of grilled chicken in Camp Unity on the south parking lot of the Pentagon.

Mealtime provides a brief respite. Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, investigators and recovery workers can choose black-eyed peas over rice with half a grilled chicken at the Salvation Army buffet line or stop by McDonalds or Burger King in the mobile food court. We join Majors Samuel and Veronica VanDenberg, commanding officers for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Salvation Army Corp, for lunch in the dining tent that includes tables with fresh flowers, homemade cookies and TV.

The VanDenbergs explain “Operation Noble Eagle,” the Pentagon’s search and recovery support, to their seven volunteers. A military chaplain had been assigned to each victim’s family at hotels, and families were encouraged to use DC area lawyers’ free legal services. The VanDenbergs’ round-the-clock service provided additional emotional and spiritual support to victims’ families. They also came alongside to support security officers, volunteers who served food or those doing search and recovery.

A conference of military chaplains at the Pentagon had ended just before the tragedy, so their assistance was instantly put into action along with additional chaplain reserves.

A street sign inside Camp Unity reads “Home Town USA.” Here the Salvation Army is coordinating food services along with cooking in their canteens. The Red Cross coordinates supplies. Both agencies are assisted by North Carolina Baptist Men’s Association, Christ in Action, Tyson Foods, Outback Steak House and Starbucks.

America’s Unity Wall offers obvious encouragement – Sharing Hope and Healing – with hundreds of signatures that connects to a colorful border of children’s art and voices of well-wishers.

Before arriving at Camp Unity, we received ID’s at the Arlington Salvation Army Corp. Within 72 hours of the attack their fellowship hall was filled wall-to-wall with supplies and hundreds of volunteers. A local businessman donated a 150,000 sq. ft. warehouse where goods could be processed. John Edwards, public relations spokesman for Operation Noble Eagle, stressed that everyone wants to make a difference – thus the wave of tractor-trailer-loads of supplies.

Photos and news releases of Operation Noble Eagle line the walls. A photo-memory remains for me: three children hanging out a car window: “Thank you to all the volunteers working so hard to help repair our lives.”

Salvation Army canteens continue to serve in the highly secured areas as the FBI gathers evidence and recovers belongings of victims to help families work at “closure.” Memorials of flowers, gifts, flags, letters and candles acknowledge the grief and loss on the lawn of the Naval Annex, near the entrance to the blackened, wounded Pentagon.

The incredible sense of kinship experienced by the VanDenbergs was felt by each of us today as the military, NGO’s and corporations worked collectively. “The emotional and spiritual needs are mammoth,” Major Samuel VanDenberg pleads. “Pray for us, send contributions – we will need them long-term.”

I return to Harrisonburg remembering:

  • A man who lost his wife, who now is encouraging the VanDenbergs,
  • An EMS paramedic from New York, who lost 66 friends, wearing a Twin Towers pin,
  • To pray for a Missouri Red Cross volunteer who admits he is getting tired,
  • The stronger relationship ties enjoyed with my Salvation Army Board colleagues today.

I ask:

  • What will be the fallout in this high tourism area?
  • What will be “normal” when our majors return?
  • Are we prepared for the waves of personal support that will continue to be needed?

I dream:

  • that the relationships being built and the generosity shared since September 11 will be just the beginning of our “being neighbors” -
  • that we will bring comfort, healing and hope, not only to our neighbors here, but extending beyond our borders.

Hannah Mack Lapp is a ‘98 MA graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. At the time of publication, Hannah was the public relations associate at Eastern Mennonite University and spouse of EMU then-President Joseph L. Lapp. She has served on the local Salvation Army Advisory Board.

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