Running away the fear, unafraid
ear Mr. Terrorist,” began Michael Carswell in a letter to the editor nearly 12 years in the penning. A retired master sergeant with the Air Force, Carswell had been working at the Pentagon when five hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the facility during the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The letter reads:
Dear Mr. Terrorist,
On September 11, 2001 you tried to kill me. For the next thirteen months, your brethren terrorist[s] continued to terrorize me in the D.C. area with Anthrax mailings and sniper shootings. You succeeded, I was terrorized. Nine years ago, I took up running as my own way to cope, it became my sanctuary. After the events of April 15, 2013, my sanctuary felt less like one. I am different now though. I will not be terrorized anymore. I will run, work, and live when and where I choose with no concern of where you may strike next. This is my life to live and I am taking it back from you. I will register for the New York City Marathon next week as I had planned and will run the Fargo Marathon next month too. I will do roughly 170 more in my endeavor to complete the 184 I set out to do for the 184 victims at the Pentagon. I will run on and live on despite whatever you do next.
Mike (A former terrorist victim)
“That letter was my first reaction to the bombing in Boston,” said Carswell, referring to the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and wounded or maimed more than 260 others.
During the second of his two D.C.-area stationings in the Air Force, from 1999 to 2004, the Conroe, Texas, native and his wife, Pam, lived in the Woodbridge area of Virginia, about 25 miles south from the Pentagon, where he worked.
Carswell was primarily in communications. “If it had a microprocessor in it, I’d probably mess with it,” he said.
He was busy working on the Tuesday morning when the plane smashed into the Pentagon’s western side.
“I was between 500 and 750 feet away from the deepest impact point,” Carswell estimated. In the ensuing chaos, he recalled exiting the building as quickly as possible.
“Nobody ever said ‘evacuate,'” he said, but he had told himself, “This was a dangerous situation and I’m getting outta here.”
The three or four hours afterward were characterized by “nothing but sheer boredom,” standing there unable either to leave or to help, he said. At one point, there was a secondary explosion, which Carswell believes was one of the many generators scattered around the Pentagon going off as the top floors finally gave way.
Although uninjured physically, he realized before long that the emotional damage was serious: post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The first thing I did was avoid flying altogether. I would do anything to keep off of planes,” he said.
He began suffering from anxiety attacks, dark depressions and bouts of anger. But ultimately, Carswell concluded that “I was lying to myself” that everything was alright, and sought help.
“In 2003, early 2004, I was recommended for a study at Walter Reed Medical Center,” he said. It was then that he discovered the pleasures of running, at first two or three times a day, two or three times a week. Before long, “I was at 10 miles a day, five days a week,” he said.
In October 2004 he was transferred to Minot Air Force Base, where after eight years he has been given a medical discharge, primarily for post-traumatic stress, he said. Carswell meets every week with other current and former servicemen suffering from PTSD.
“I’m the anomaly,” said Carswell, the only one there suffering from noncombat-related traumatization. “I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong.”
The peers in his group have been very supportive.
“Going into a combat zone, a bad guy could be around any corner,” one combat veteran had explained to him. That Carswell, or anybody, would be thrown into a violent situation such as he experienced on a Tuesday at the office is a difficult thing to comprehend, much less be prepared for.
“Before that day it was unthinkable, taking a plane and crashing it like that,” he said.
“You never know what can trigger it,” he said of his panic attacks, which vary in severity. “I’ve been afraid of flying. I have anxiety over anything that’s out of the ordinary. I have highs and lows.”
“But it’s certainly not a cure. I wish that were the case. It’s just part of how I deal with it,” he said.
He didn’t become a marathon runner overnight.
“I ran my first 5K in the summer of 2006,” he said. After running a 10-kilometer run at the Prairie Rose State Games shortly thereafter, he began to think, “Maybe I can do this.”
Carswell wants to run 184 marathons, in memory of the 184 victims in the Pentagon attack.
“The goal keeps me running. Next month will be my number 13,” he said, referring to the marathon in Fargo.
Of his 12 marathons so far, he has run most in North and South Dakota, with six in Fargo. Carswell isn’t hard-set on his numbers, though, so long as it’s at least marathon-length. He described the ultramarathon he ran in Lean Horse, S.D., which was a 50-mile endeavor. To prepare for such a long distance, he would go down to Oak Park, running 15 mile-long loops around the park before sunup, which he laughingly recalls caught police attention on occasion.
His wife and three children are also there to support him.
“They’ve gotten to go to neat places,” he said, listing Estes Park, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas.
“I don’t care how fast I am,” said Carswell. Typically coming in at “3:46 and change,” he realizes he is not going to win an Olympic medal.
“Running is my hobby. Right now I’m only doing only 30 or so miles a week,” he said.
That hobby eases his PTSD, although coping with the anxiety continues to be a daily struggle.
“In hindsight, I wonder how much that all the whole thing had to do with it. For 13 months the whole region was terrorized,” he said, citing the beltway sniper and anthrax mailings in the year following 9/11 as contributing sources to his pain. He has not been back to the Pentagon since the move to North Dakota, or to the memorial dedicated to those who perished that day.
“Part of me says I want to go back,” he said, athough he admits another part of him does not want to go back without his 184 marathon medals.
He wrote a book, “Running from 9/11.” It is a review of his experience during the attacks and his subsequent battle with PTSD.
“I’ve written it in my head a dozen times” during his frequent runs, he said. “So when it came to actually writing, it took no time at all.” The book was completed in five years, by his reckoning.
“I know there’ll be Congressmen and other legislators looking into our intelligence agencies,” he said of efforts to find things that might have gone wrong leading up to the Boston bombing.
“They can’t be everywhere,” he said in their defense. But the defense carries its own caveat: “When they are everywhere at once, this isn’t America anymore.”
“What can you do, though?” he asks, suggesting that people report suspicious activity to authorities. “If you see something out of place, say something. … There’s some responsibility on everybody’s part for these freedoms.”
In the end, despite all vigilance, Carswell feels that sometimes “bad stuff is gonna happen and you can’t stop it. How can you stop it?”
Without finding any easy answer to that, in the meantime one simply lives. Since retirement from the service, Carswell has been working on an accounting degree at Minot State University.
“My last four or five years (in the Air Force) I was in charge of the guy who did the books,” he said of his personal interest in the field.
“I’ve always been good at math,” he said. “To be honest, the field is pretty open for me” once he graduates.
As far as plans for the future, Carswell is not fretting with two years to go for his degree.
“A lot can happen in two years,” he said.
Until then and beyond, he runs. Carswell’s journey can be followed on his marathon page, at (www.facebook.com/184marathons).