Karen Wagner’s Life

She grew up listening to her dad talk about his days in the Army. She knew she wanted to be a soldier too. She spent nearly two decades serving her country with a quiet determination. On September 11, 2001, she went to her office at the Pentagon.

September 2011By Comments

Lieutenant colonel Karen Wagner, in an official Army portrait that was taken after her promotion in July 2001.

In the summer of 1965, when Karen Wagner was a pint-size tagalong trailing her big brother and sister around the Fort Riley Army Base, everybody called her Peanut. The nickname had been given by a platoon sergeant named Omer Darty, whom she knew as Uncle Omer. The two weren’t related by blood or marriage, but he was tight enough with her dad, a combat medic named Bill, that “uncle” was the only word that made sense. And it reflected the earliest understanding that the little girl with the big, inquisitive eyes had about life, one that was two-pronged but simple: Her family was Army, and the Army was family.

The Wagners lived in Junction City, Kansas, filling a three-bedroom house surrounded by other military families. Everyone Karen knew was of that world. Her babysitters were Army wives and Army brat teenagers. Her doctor and dentist visits were always at the base clinic, not far from the hospital where she had been born. When her mom, Mattie, couldn’t go to the store, a friend would take her grocery list to the PX. The highlight of Karen’s earliest Christmases was a pageant at an auditorium at Fort Riley. And when the soldiers left for tours in Vietnam, families would often move in together to share bills and to give moral support. So when Bill and Uncle Omer deployed that summer, it stood to reason that Omer’s new wife, Thelma, would move in with the Wagners.

For all the changes that a fatherless household entailed, Army kids knew that there were two primary things to keep an eye out for. The first was packages from overseas, and Karen’s dad was good about that. He’d send exotic-looking baby dolls and candy she’d never seen before, along with radios, wristwatches, and dresses for Mattie. That the chocolate bars would have melted and rehardened several times in transit, rendering them a strange gray color upon arrival, would merely be something to tease him about when he finally came home.

But the other potential delivery was terrifying. Though the Wagner kids didn’t talk about it, they knew that their dad might not be coming home at all. They knew too that the only time the base commander would venture into their neighborhood was to bring that news. It happened often enough that even a child as young as Karen, then four and a half, was able to recognize his car. If she was playing in the yard and saw the big green sedan rolling up the block, she froze.

One day that December, the sedan stopped in front of the Wagners’ house. Karen and her sister, eleven-year-old Kim, watched as the base commander and another man got out. Mattie let the men in but shooed the girls into a bedroom before sitting down in the kitchen with the men and Thelma. The sisters stood silently with their ears against the door. Seconds stretched into agonizing minutes, until finally they heard someone scream. But they couldn’t tell who. Kim bolted for the kitchen and saw Thelma crying. Mattie quickly ushered her back to her sister.

Eventually Mattie joined them. Before she could even take a seat on the bed, Karen started asking questions.

“What happened to Uncle Omer?” she asked.

“He stepped on a landmine,” Mattie said.

“How did it happen? Is he coming back? What’s going to happen to Miss Thelma?”

Mattie had no way to respond. And though the answers eventually came, for Karen they were by themselves never enough. Omer Darty was not just a name in the news.

Years later, as a 33-year-old personnel officer newly transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., Major Karen Wagner would make her first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. She found Uncle Omer’s name, pulled a pencil and a sheet of paper from her purse, and made a rubbing of it to take home. In the years that followed, she’d return again and again. During Memorial Day ceremonies she’d volunteer to read aloud the section with his name in it. At other times she’d just sit and think about him. She needed him to know that family doesn’t forget.

Bill Wagner was not the kind of combat veteran who didn’t like to talk about his experiences, but then the Army provided the context and plot for almost all the stories he told. His father had fought in the infantry in World War I. Bill himself was a surgical nurse who’d first seen action overseas in France in World War II. He’d met Karen’s mom, Mattie Smith, at a soldier’s funeral in Montgomery, Alabama, catching her eye as a member of the escort detachment, a handsome man with a thick black mustache, decked out in his crisp dress greens. He was then a 34-year-old sergeant first class from Philadelphia, and she was a quiet country girl of eighteen. Any reservations her parents had about the age difference faded when they saw the way the chatty city boy made their stoic daughter laugh. Just as important, they knew he had a solid career. Bill and Mattie married in early 1951, shortly before he left on his first tour in Korea. Kim was born just before he returned from his second, at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base in 1954, followed by Warren, at Fort Lewis, Washington, in 1957. Then came Kansas, where Karen was born in 1961, and a second son, Karl, in 1964.

When Bill transferred to Fort Sam Houston four years later, he loaded the family into a yellow station wagon and drove them to San Antonio. They moved to Converse a few years after that, once he’d retired and taken a nursing job at a local hospital. But Fort Sam stayed at the center of Karen’s world. That’s where the family went for groceries, health care, and haircuts. They saw movies in the base theater. Kim and Warren, then in their teens, started an R&B group, which played for soldiers returning from Vietnam.

In the evenings, Karen loved to listen to her dad hold court in the living room. His stories might be prompted by events in the news, visits by old war buddies, or questions from Karen and her siblings, who sat on the floor doing their homework or playing board games. He told them about the Tuskegee Airmen and how the Army had changed since the segregated days, when he’d enlisted. He talked about how the North Vietnamese had tried to get in his head, sending messages over the radio like “Hey, black soldier, what are you fighting for? America doesn’t care about you.”

She’d crawl up in his lap, smelling that sanitized hospital scent that always stuck with him at the end of the day. But even that meant the Army to Karen. She’d ask about his job as a combat medic, and he’d tell her how the red crosses on their helmets had made them targets for the enemy. He told her how he’d gotten shot through the shoulder. And he talked about the nonnegotiable priority of never leaving a fallen soldier in the field. Even if all that was left was his dog tags.

Karen would sit riveted, and now that he was retired, she could listen unafraid. He taught her that that was simply the way a family operated. He’d known that if anything happened to him, the Army would take care of his family. And being in the Army was the life he had wanted. It gave him a chance to serve his country. It meant meeting people from all over the world, learning about where they were from and picking up bits of their language. He was a people person, like Karen, and a soft touch around the house. Discipline was Mattie’s job, and when she was too tired to mess with it, she’d tell Bill to do the spanking. If Karen had it coming, he’d take her to her room, shut the door, then slap the bed a couple times while she pretended to cry. She adored him. And she was every bit as fascinated by his uniform as Mattie had been.

She finally got to put on one of her own when she enrolled at Judson High School, where she joined the junior ROTC. She was no longer anybody’s Peanut, having sprouted to five-nine, with a long sprinter’s body. She ran the first leg on the girls’ sprint relays and played basketball as well. She’d become a cutup, like her dad, and if one of the other girls’ bras turned up in the hotel ice maker at an out-of-town track meet, everybody knew who’d done it. If a teammate needed a tampon, Karen would yell, “Stick!” like she did when passing the relay baton, and hold one out with a stiff right arm. But during practice, she was all business, the go-between for the girls and their coach. Still, ROTC was her focus. By the time she graduated, in 1979, she had given up her track and basketball dreams. Her goal was to be an Army officer.

On Valentine’s Day 1984, Karen married George Hardison, a week before accepting her commission as a second lieutenant. The two of them could have passed for a mismatched couple on a sitcom. She was two inches taller, more if she wore heels, and always beamed a mile-wide smile, backed by the confident, commanding air she’d inherited from Mattie. George’s face was serious, but that masked a get-rich dreamer with a strong streak of goofiness. They’d met at the rec center at San Angelo’s Goodfellow Air Force Base, in March 1980, when she was a freshman at Angelo State and he was an Air Force sergeant. He’d left the service shortly thereafter and moved to Las Vegas, prompting her to transfer to UNLV.

When her commission came through, Karen opted to do like her dad and entered the Army medical branch, but with a focus on the administrative side. She did her basic training at Fort Sam and then went to Fort Benjamin Harrison, in Indiana, for her technical training. An unemployed George went with her, staying at sister Kim’s house in nearby Fort Wayne while Karen trained on the base during the week.

It was Kim’s first extended exposure to her new brother-in-law, an experience occasioned by much arching of eyebrows and shaking of the head. To earn his keep, George offered to spruce up her lawn, then trimmed her four-foot-tall hedges down to under one foot. He announced that his second career would be as a chef, put a soufflé in the oven, and set it on self-clean. Kim went out to get burgers.

But when her sister was around, Kim saw why she had fallen so hard. George and Karen laughed together the same way Bill and Mattie did. When Kim’s husband met George for the first time, George insisted the sisters let him pretend he was blind. He put on a pair of sunglasses and rolled his head from side to side like Stevie Wonder. He thrust out his arm to shake hands in the exact wrong direction. He’d have kept it up all night if Karen could have controlled herself.

On February 22, 1987, Karen’s twenty-sixth birthday, she gave birth to their daughter, Saundra, at Fort Lee, Virginia, shortly before being transferred back to Army med headquarters at Fort Sam. It was exactly where the young family needed to be. Saundra was special. She was born with hydrocephalus and spina bifida. She was blind, and she had to be fed through a tube. The Army docs warned that she wouldn’t live long, but for Karen, having Saundra in the town she’d grown up in, with all the Army medical resources available, felt like a blessing. “This is my baby, and she needs me to care for her,” Karen told Kim. “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to lean into this and trust the grace of God.”

Karen and George learned to operate the shunt that drained fluid off Saundra’s brain so she wouldn’t have to live at the hospital. Each morning they went through an elaborate ritual of rolling Saundra’s arms and legs in their hands so her muscles wouldn’t atrophy. Their modest house off-base filled with state-of-the-art medical equipment, like a feeding apparatus and a monitor to alert them when Saundra stopped breathing.

George stayed at home with Saundra so that Karen could meet the increasing demands of being an officer. She was given a company command, placed in charge of the training of a couple hundred new Army med specialists, and the hours were brutal. She’d meet her soldiers for physical fitness training each morning at five, work on their paperwork and career planning during the day, and then be back with them until they bedded down at ten.

She still gave every minute to Saundra she could. Through that fall and winter, they were a familiar sight at Fort Sam, the cheerful captain pushing her sick daughter across a courtyard or sitting with her in the bleachers watching Karen’s soldiers play basketball.

But the docs’ prognosis was accurate. Saundra died in April, two months after her first birthday. The experience proved too much for mother and father. The laughter wasn’t coming back. They divorced barely a year later, just as Karen was leaving to become chief of personnel for the 67th Evacuation Hospital, at Würzburg, Germany.

The army classified Karen’s job as 70F, but the closest that got to glamorous was its Army med moniker, foxtrot. She was a hospital administrator. A paper pusher. But if the duties were low in drama, their effect was not. Her focus was personnel, and the matters she dealt with—promotions, commendations, station assignments for families with two Army parents—were at the heart of a soldier’s Army experience. A form that was filled out incorrectly or that languished too long in some superior’s inbox would be the kind of completely predictable, explainable snafu that could drive a soldier out of the service. In a bureaucracy the size of the Army’s, those kinds of problems would be fixed only by a personnel officer who cared, and Karen did. More to the point, in a top-down hierarchy, a soldier is always at the mercy of the person above him. One person’s bad day will become a bad day for everyone who depends on him.

But nobody ever saw Karen have a bad day. When she was back at Fort Sam in the mid-nineties, working in the inspector general’s office on investigations into matters like the quality of patient care, her old colleagues in HR knew when she was coming to visit because she’d start singing “Hey Baby, Que Paso” as she walked down the hall, then dance with one of the captains once she got through the door. Her frequent morning announcement, “Here we are, another day in paradise,” had no bitter edge, since she was the co-worker who regularly brought boxes of warm doughnuts in for the office. And she was funny. When a hard-ass colonel would create a fuss about some otherwise meaningless glitch, like an upside-down slide in a PowerPoint presentation, her standard explanation, “It’s a black thing, sir. You wouldn’t understand,” would bust up the room.

She could pull that off because she was good at her job, and the Army took note. In 1997 she was transferred back to Walter Reed, the Army’s flagship hospital, where she was named brigade executive officer and deputy brigade commander. It was a huge responsibility. Walter Reed is a unique beast. The seven companies stationed there, which include the hospital’s doctors, nurses, and staff, number up to seven hundred soldiers each, nearly five times the size of a normal company. Typical Army companies would be grouped into battalions, whose commanders would manage the company commanders and report to the brigade executive officer. But some of the companies at Walter Reed were already close to battalion size, so that level was skipped, and the company commanders reported directly to Karen. Thus her dual title and, essentially, two full-time jobs: She had to manage the brigade staff, as well as the day-to-day health, welfare, and discipline of every one of the 2,600 soldiers at Walter Reed.

The pressure didn’t faze her. She recognized quickly that maintaining soldier discipline would prove to be the sticking point. Another Army med peculiarity is that much of the manpower comes from doctors and nurses who outrank the young captains who command their companies. They can be difficult people to order around. If Karen was going to continue her string of successes at Walter Reed, she’d have to teach her company commanders how to lead.

One of them was Augie Schomburg. He was a 32-year-old Army med officer when he took charge of Bravo Company in July 1999, a captain so green he only learned of his promotion the day before he arrived at Walter Reed. He’d been there ten minutes when Karen called him into her office. She shut the door behind him and invited him to sit down. Then she went to work on him.

“This is not a standard company,” she explained. “More than half your soldiers are lieutenant colonels and colonels. You’ve got docs doing Senate-funded cancer research, high-profile, politically connected people. Setting the tone here will be about the art of influence. You’ve got to demonstrate good leadership. And you’ll do that by showing the same level of respect to everyone, from the lowest civilian staffer to the highest-ranking surgeon, even though he might not be able to put on his uniform correctly, which he probably won’t.”

Schomburg took it in, not entirely sure what she meant. But he started to understand as he looked around the room. She had an impressive corner office overlooking the rose garden. Her dark cherrywood desk was uncluttered, with just a short stack of that day’s business, a bowl of chocolates, and some doodads revealing her love for the San Antonio Spurs. But the I-love-myself wall typical of most accomplished career officers was conspicuous in its absence. Neither her college degree nor her master’s in hospital services was displayed, nor any of her many awards. Instead, her success was implied by mementos that mattered more to her: a flag from the company she’d led at Fort Sam and a collection of commander’s coins given to her by superior officers, part of the Army tradition of quietly recognizing contributions that didn’t quite rise to commendation level.

She schooled him for 45 minutes, then abruptly shifted gears. “Tell me about your family,” she said. “Tell me who you are.” She listened intently as he talked about his wife and kids for another fifteen. When he finished, she walked him across the hall and introduced him to the brigade commander, repeating his life story word for word. He walked away feeling like he mattered.

She’d teach him more at thrice-weekly meetings with the rest of the company commanders. This was the nuts and bolts of her command, sitting in her office with her protégés, weighing the plights of individual soldiers against the needs of Walter Reed. They managed a potential controversy when a rash of people, from colonels on down, misused special credit cards they’d been given for travel expenses. They developed a strategy for getting the docs to satisfy their physical fitness requirements, curing a long-standing headache at Walter Reed.

Bigger lessons came when they addressed the case-by-case discipline problems. A JAG officer attended those meetings too, typically bringing with her an armload of litigation files detailing everything from hot checks to bar fights. Karen had the final say on whether to prosecute. Once again, soldiers’ careers were in her hands. One time the charge was cocaine possession. A soldier had treated himself to a small party in the barracks, then jumped out a window and broken his leg. If he’d had a higher rank, he’d have been kicked out immediately. But he was just a kid, and his company commander, Captain Diana King, didn’t know what to do. Karen didn’t hesitate.

“What does his sergeant suggest?” Karen asked.

“She said to give him a second chance.”

“Then that’s what we do,” Karen replied. “You have to trust the people under you. The Army trains them to do the right thing. So put your faith in the Army.”

But faith’s just a concept until it’s tested. In early 2000 Karen learned she’d been passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel, and the news hurt. Her colleagues reasoned she was a victim of bad numbers, that if more spots had been open that year, she would have gotten the nod. Still, Schomburg, King, and the rest of her company commanders were shocked. They sent her flowers. Karen tried to hide the disappointment and instead pressed on. More days in paradise. That summer she transferred across the Walter Reed campus to the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command, where she’d be the secretary of the general’s staff for Major General Harold Timboe. He was in charge of every Army hospital from Maine to Wisconsin and down to North Carolina, and Karen was his gatekeeper, responsible for every bit of information that went in and out of his office. She nailed the assignment. When she came up for promotion again the next year, she got the bump, a rarity for someone who’d been passed over already.

Every officer has her own idea about how to mark a promotion. Some do it quietly in their offices; others simply show up for work wearing their new rank. Karen intended to celebrate. In July, some sixty friends and colleagues gathered for a formal ceremony in the grand foyer of Walter Reed’s historic Building One, where General Timboe pinned a lieutenant colonel’s silver oak leaf to the epaulet of her crisp dress greens. As passersby noticed who was getting the honor, the crowd grew to more than a hundred, most of whom then followed her upstairs to a reception in the Eisenhower Suite.

Karen insisted that the real treat that morning was the strawberry cake she’d ordered for the occasion. “You’ve got to have a great cake when you’re promoted,” she said, “because that’s all that anyone will remember.” On that point she was wrong. The buzz at the reception was about her new assignment to be the medical branch representative to the deputy chief of staff for Army personnel. She was going to the Pentagon.

As her start date approached, Karen liked to joke that the Pentagon wasn’t necessarily a step up. “They make colonels fetch coffee over there,” she said. “What are they going to do to a little lieutenant colonel like me?” Her girlfriends teased back that she probably wouldn’t even be there long, that she’d fall in love with some high-ranking old fart, finally remarry, and retire. But in truth, everything about the move thrilled her. She’d vet officers’ promotion packets and commendation reviews for all Army med officers, then make necessary changes as she escorted the paperwork through the highest echelons of the system, taking it from the deputy chief of staff, Lieutenant General Timothy Maude, to the secretary of the Army, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, the White House, and finally the Senate. And she’d be working out of brand-new digs. The Pentagon was in the middle of a billion-dollar, twenty-year renovation, its first true overhaul since opening, in 1943. General Maude’s command had just moved into the first fully restored space, sprawling second-floor offices on the west side of the building that stretched from the outer E ring inside to the B, covering more than an acre. To ensure that she arrived in appropriate style, the instant her new, improved paycheck came in, Karen bought a navy-blue Mercedes-Benz.

When she showed up in August, she made fast friends with Major Sherry Sargent, who analyzed reports on enlisted units’ readiness. Since they handled sensitive files, their work spaces were sequestered from the rest of the department in a suite with a dozen other officers. Outside, more than one hundred people worked the cubicle farm, long rows of desks and filing cabinets that stretched through the D and C rings. Inside, Karen took one of ten cubes. But Sargent’s paperwork was even more closely guarded, so within the small, windowless space, she actually had an office with a door. Sargent had noticed Karen on her first day, the tall new co-worker with a public chocolate bowl and screen saver that read “Dance like nobody’s watching!” Then Sargent learned they were members of the same African American sorority. Since the two of them preferred the comfort of sweats and T-shirts for the ride into work, they started meeting most mornings in Sargent’s office, where they changed from their street clothes into their green class Bs.

Karen liked to get there with enough time to gab, and somehow the conversation always got around to children. She might start by grousing about her boyfriend, the topic of conversation with a lot of her girlfriends. She’d gotten close to remarrying a couple times but never quite made it, and unfortunately this latest guy wasn’t working out either. For one thing, he wasn’t military. Just as bad, he didn’t have a car. “What am I supposed to do with him?” she’d say. “Tell him, ‘Let’s get on the bus and go to dinner’?” Or if she’d had one of her long phone calls with Kim the night before, she might be thinking about her retirement dream, to get out at the twenty-year mark in 2004 and teach Army kids with Kim on an overseas base. But no matter what might prompt her, she talked often to Sargent about feeling her age and missing Saundra, about how much she’d enjoyed putting pretty dresses on her in the short time they’d had together. She wanted another child badly, and though she didn’t mention it to Sargent, she’d actually started looking into adopting a baby. But who knew? Maybe her girlfriends were right. Maybe the perfect man was waiting in the Pentagon. She’d reboot her smile and go about her day.

On the morning of September 11, Karen was already at her desk when Sargent arrived at the Pentagon. Karen had a full day slated. First there was last-minute prep for a meeting with General Maude, and then she planned to cut out at lunchtime to attend a retirement party at Walter Reed for her old brigade first sergeant. Sargent stopped to visit on her way to her office. She had a new diet she wanted to try. They popped a couple chocolates in their mouths while discussing the benefits of taking up carrots.

A little before nine, Sargent rushed to Karen’s desk and asked if she’d heard the news from New York: A plane had flown into the north tower at the World Trade Center. Since General Harry Axson was traveling, people were watching reports on the TV in his office in the B ring, and Sargent was headed to join them. Karen told her that she’d already seen the news on the web. But as she tried to explain that she had too much work to leave her desk, Chief Warrant Officer Bill Ruth, Karen’s counterpart for the Army Reserves, leaned around from his cube and shushed them. He was on the phone trying to find out what was happening. Karen motioned for Sargent to go on.

Just as Sargent got in front of the TV, the second plane hit the south tower. She called Karen and told her to get down there. This time Karen came and stood in stunned silence with some twenty other officers. A new reality settled over the room. This wasn’t an accident; this was an act of war. People started to react. The colonel in command of Karen and Sargent showed up in the doorway and calmly explained that an emergency operations center was being set up in the basement. But Karen wasn’t assigned to the EOC. She looked around the room and said, “Okay, let’s get back to work.” As she walked off down the hall, Sargent turned and watched her go.

The initial flash of sound was deafening, unreal. The officers still in Axson’s office didn’t know what had happened. Some thought there might have been an explosion at the helipad. Others were certain it was part of the attack. Karen, who was sitting at her desk, never got to wonder. American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the building on the first floor, buckling the concrete floor of the second as it barreled underneath her like a freight train. In an instant, she and the others at their desks were thrown across the room. Everything came crashing down—cabinets, bookshelves, wall lockers, ceiling tiles, overhead lighting—and the windowless office went absolutely black. Before any of the living had a chance to get their bearings, the jet fuel exploded about four feet from Karen’s cubicle. The room temperature soared from 75 degrees to 1,700 as a fireball engulfed the office, leaving behind a toxic black cloud. There was no way to see it in the endless, unnatural dark, but if you lifted your head, you could feel it. And if you tried to breathe, it felt like you were inhaling fire.

Major John Thurman, who had been sitting two desks down from Karen, lay on the floor and called out to see if anyone else was alive. Only Karen and Bill Ruth answered back. Thurman put his head as close to the floor as he could without burning his face, forced in a deep breath, and stood. He moved some file cabinets to make a path to Karen and then another to pull Ruth to them.

“We’ve got to crawl to the door and get out of here,” said Thurman. But Ruth was too injured to move, so Karen and Thurman told him they’d come back for him once they found a way out. Then they made a train, Karen crawling behind Thurman with a hand gripping his belt. They stopped every few feet to lower their heads and breathe, then make their way over more debris. The heat was unimaginable.

As Thurman led the way, he could hear Karen praying. They got to a door that had its bottom hinge broken off. Thurman put his hand through the crack and immediately pulled it back. The room on the other side was nothing but flames. They moved back to Ruth and found him unconscious. Thurman tried to think of another way out, then realized Karen had fallen silent and let go of his belt. He could feel sleep trying to come over him too. But in the haze he remembered an email that morning from his father. His younger sister’s water had broken. She was going to have a baby. It occurred to him that he couldn’t let his parents lose a son on the day their first grandchild was born. With a burst of adrenaline he pushed on alone.

He made it to one of the corridors that span the Pentagon like spokes on a wheel, propping the door open with one of his shoes so it wouldn’t lock behind him. Thurman pleaded with a group of officers to let him take them to where he’d left Karen and Ruth, but by then black sheets of smoke were billowing through the cracked door from floor to ceiling. There was no way anyone inside was still alive.

It’s strange the way history moved so fast after a day when time stood still. Nearly 3,000 people died in the September 11 attacks, 125 of whom were working in the Pentagon. Fifty-five of those were military personnel, including Karen Wagner and Naval Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Caballero, who grew up in Houston. The two were the only Texans identified as active-duty casualties at the Pentagon. Two weeks later President George W. Bush declared a global war on terror, and within two months, a coalition led by American forces would take Kabul, Afghanistan. In March 2003 the U.S. would lead a similar coalition into Iraq.

On the second anniversary of 9/11, the gym at Walter Reed was renamed the Karen J. Wagner Sports Center. By the third anniversary, in 2004, Army med had started giving an annual Karen Wagner Leadership Award to standout human resources officers, and the following year kids back in Converse began attending Karen Wagner High School. Kim, Warren, and Karl went to as many of the dedications and ceremonies in Karen’s honor as they could. They grew close to the families of others who died that day, going on occasional vacations with them. And they talked to survivors to try to piece together Karen’s last moments. Mattie, who stayed in Converse after Bill died, in 1995, attended the events for a while but eventually stopped going. Sometimes the answers and awards are just too much.

The Army moved quickly after 9/11 to honor soldiers whose actions in the aftermath merited special recognition. Augie Schomburg was one of them. He’d been on the phone at Walter Reed when he heard that the Pentagon had been hit and had sprinted across the campus with Major Berthony Ladouceur, Karen’s replacement as brigade executive officer, to start setting up their EOC. They knew the hospital would be a key component in the medical response to the attack, that Walter Reed docs and nurses would be needed at makeshift trauma stations at the Pentagon, that Walter Reed beds would be needed for the injured. As hospital administrators, they’d be responsible for managing those resources.

Schomburg stayed at the EOC for four days straight, gathering information for General Timboe and getting his orders out, never once taking a break. When traffic prevented a busload of doctors and nurses from getting out of Walter Reed, Schomburg arranged for National Guard helicopters to ferry them to the Pentagon. The EOC sent oxygen, portable anesthetic, and every supply they could find that might help treat burns. Psych teams were dispatched to support the survivors and first responders. A nuclear-biological-chemical response team was sent, just in case. Time was a blur, and at some point Schomburg learned that Karen had been killed. But it wasn’t until the EOC stood down on Friday, and his long drive home took him by the Pentagon, that he finally started to grieve for his mentor.

In June 2002 he received the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, presented each year to a handful of junior officers deemed to represent the future of the Army. At a ceremony in the Pentagon’s center courtyard, General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, presented him and 25 others a bust of MacArthur. During a quieter moment, he also gave each of them one of his commander’s coins.

A year later, Schomburg made his first trip to San Antonio since 9/11, for Army med’s annual five-day conference at Fort Sam. When he found some downtime, he and Captain Michael Dake, another of Karen’s old company commanders, went to visit her grave.

The July sun was high and hot, but they parked in the shade of some live oaks and walked a long row of matching granite headstones until they found hers. The first thing they noticed was Saundra’s marker next to it. They weren’t ready for that. For a moment, they simply stood there, thinking about the mother back together with her daughter.

Then Schomburg knelt down, pulling Shinseki’s coin out of his pocket. In his mind he put Karen back at Walter Reed. Every time she had brought a new commander’s coin into her office, she had slapped it down on her desk like an old man playing dominoes. He looked at Shinseki’s coin, then placed it flush against the base of her headstone and pushed it into the ground with his thumb. “I didn’t get this on my own,” he said softly. He needed her to know that family doesn’t forget.

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