Widow accepts Afghanistan mission after 9/11 twist of fate

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Sgt. Maj. Larry Strickland and Sgt. Maj. Debra Strickland

Sgt. Maj. Larry Strickland was less than a month from retirement when he went to work on Sept. 11, 2001. He already had his retirement speech stored on his office computer. But it was a speech he would never give. He died that day when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

“We had a middle-aged love story,” his wife, Sgt. Maj. Debra Strickland, says.  It was a second marriage for him and a first for her -- and an extremely happy one, she says, based on friendship, compatibility, and a shared love of the Army. “It had to do with knowing the whole is more important than the individual,” Debra, now 56, says. His death left an “empty space” that the past 10 years have not filled.

“You don’t move on. You adjust your life,” she says. “I have not adjusted my heart to his loss.” But Debra says she has reached a point where she’s calm.

Her husband’s job – serving as the senior enlisted officer advising the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel -- “was about making soldiers look knowledgeable and good,” she says. Hers – as the command sergeant major for the Army’s Installation Management Command -- “was about correcting things.”

Their conflicting missions initially led to some contentious interactions at the Pentagon, Debra laughs, with her investigating alleged mismanagement and Larry standing up for the personnel.

At the suggestion of a female friend and supervisor, however, Debra eventually accepted – with reservations -- Larry’s invitation to try to ease their differences over a round of bowling.

That was followed by more bowling and four years of dating, and they were married on Oct. 6, 1995, in Occoquan State Park, outside of Washington, D.C. She was 36, he was 42.

“Larry had yet to pack up his office, there were so many gifts that I would not let him bring home,” Debra laments. “It was such a mistake. Tons of wonderful photos and everything in the office, was moved to the new section [of the Pentagon that was struck], not a month before.”

Also lost: the speech for his retirement ceremony. Debra says she had so eagerly waited to hear what he would say about her in the speech.

“I knew he was going to say something … important for me to hear,” Debra says. “I spent more energy trying to resurrect it. …. I wanted to know what he was going to say.”

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Debra Strickland

When some of Larry’s friends realized Debra was so distraught about the speech, they “flew in, and started telling me stories,” Debra says, about how happy he had been with her.

On Sept. 11, Debra was working not far from the Pentagon at Ft. Belvoir, Va. “We were doing access control exercises on the day he died, looking at what to do if we need to close the gates, practicing that” sort of thing, Debra says, remembering with a break in her voice:  “It was a gorgeous day.”

In shock after Larry was killed, Debra thought she would retire immediately from active duty, but colleagues and commanders encouraged her not to make a sudden change.

“I am not clear how it happened, but I stayed on,” Debra says, serving eight more years active duty before making two tours in Afghanistan.

She says the three years after Sept. 11 —and the constant reminders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon as the nation entered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- were a nightmarish blur. “The imagery, the conferences…. It was an exercise in Groundhog Day. For three years. I prayed every day.”

The agony eased after three years, she says, but it still didn’t get easy.

Her two tours in Kabul were “the most fulfilling experience I ever had, in all my years. I got to serve with the soldiers, with what I associated with the work my husband did before his death,” Debra says.

Debra finally retired last year after serving 35 years. Recently, she has been helping her mother in Florida deal with a health crisis and is finally getting a chance to consider what she will do next do in her career. Debra also serves on the board of advisors to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Fund.

Debra says the country and its elected leaders have lost sight of their sense of national focus in the 10 years since 9/11, and she urges a restoration of balance and accountability.

“Someone needs to hold the process accountable,” she says.

But Debra has not lost her sense of optimism and hope in the past 10 years.

“I certainly believe we can get the nation back on track, and we can do it fast,” Debra says. “We need to cooperate. When things are so hopeless and are so desperate for so many people, we need to find common ground.” And the tone of her voice makes it clear she believes we can.

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Larry Strickland’s parents, Lee and Olga Strickland, of Puget Sound, Washington State, died in 2008, eight months apart. Besides his wife Debra, he is also survived by his younger sister Donna Marie, by his three grown children: Julia, Matthew and Chris, and three grandchildren: Brendan, Sammy and Levi.


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