GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A U.S. Army veteran who was part of the force that rushed to the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, is marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks in a special way.
Jesse Johnson-Brower of Grand Rapids is past the halfway point of his journey on foot between the three Sept. 11 national memorial sites to mark the anniversary and raise awareness for veterans’ mental health.
“The emotional attachment was heavier than what I thought, heavier than what I expected,” Johnson-Brower said of his visit.
Johnson-Brower’s journey home, as he calls it, to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial has brought out a host of emotions.
The Grand Rapids businessman and nonprofit CEO left Gerald R. Ford International Airport on Aug. 12, bound for the Pentagon by way of New York and Pennsylvania.
His trek covers 454 miles, 20 miles per day, each day producing a new and sometimes painful memory.
“I was passing through a small town in New Jersey and I just happened to pass two woman having a conversation,” Johnson-Brower said.
It’s hard to ignore an imposing figure walking with a police escort, so the woman asked Johnson-Brower the reason for his walk.
“When I shared what I was doing, I looked back and one of the woman had taken a knee and she was just sobbing. She actually lost her husband and her son that day in the towers. Just to see that immediate emotion, it took my breath away,” Johnson-Brower said.
The inspiration for his walk goes back to that dark day nearly 20 years ago. At the time, Johnson-Brower was a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment based outside of D.C. His company was among the first to respond to the Pentagon after the attack.
“I’ve noticed on the walk that my emotions have been triggered in ways that I didn’t think they would. That just shows me that l’ve suffered a lot for a really long time. It will be freeing to let those out,” Johnson-Brower said.
Letting it all out has been one of his goals since establishing Life Growth and Reconstruction. LifeGR, as it’s known, has helped over 3,000 veterans with mental health struggles.
“These people are depressed and things lead downhill, but it typically stems from boredom. So adrenaline therapy is a program that were able to send these guys and woman really exciting life experiences that they can get the blood rushing again just to beat that depression,” Johnson-Brower said.
Today the mission continues. The goal: reach the Pentagon by Sept. 11. Along the way, he hopes to raise awareness about and provide help for those still dealing with the effects of the attacks, and educate those who weren’t around.
“I’d like to advocate for Sept. 11 (remembrance) to the younger generation, and let them see the impact that it’s had on everyone,” Johnson-Brower said. “If nothing else, to educate them on our history.”