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Brothers in arms answered the call of Sept. 11
By TOM SMITH
The Kansas City Star
Curt (left) and Clay Daniels got an education like few others, learning about war, leadership, family and one’s self.
Jan Daniels is proud of everything her sons have accomplished, but there is one subject that makes her emotional.
As the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it’s difficult for her to recall what her youngest son went through six years later while serving in the Army.
Curt Daniels — who followed in the footsteps of his brother Clay and played football at the U.S. Military Academy after graduating from Blue Valley North — was injured Nov. 5, 2007, while on a tour of duty in Iraq. The incident, which occurred while he was on night patrol, left him with a broken hip and knee, foot and shoulder injuries.
“I was lucky to be alive,” Curt said. “I will never be the same physically. It made me appreciate life more than ever before.”
Curt was evacuated to Germany and then sent for treatment to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where Jan was waiting.
“What I saw at Walter Reed is something every American should experience,” Jan said. “It’s heartbreaking, meeting these young soldiers.”
“They were a godsend,” Curt said of his mother and his father, Bill Daniels.
“They took care of me. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without them.”
Curt eventually needed a hip replacement, and today he looks more like a football player than a soldier who was injured in a war zone.
“We are very grateful that he is alive and that they were able to mend his injuries,” Jan said. “Looking at him today, you wouldn’t know what he has been through.”
• • •
Jan Daniels got a call to turn on her television on the morning of Sept. 11.
One tower at the World Trade Center in New York had already fallen, and she saw the second go down. Terrorists flying four hijacked commercial airliners killed nearly 3,000 Americans that day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania.
“I knew that meant Clay would be going to war,” Jan said.
“I became an Army mom of two combat soldiers. It changed my life forever.”
Because flights were canceled because of the attack, Jan and Bill drove three days later to Fort Benning, Ga., to see Clay graduate from Army Ranger School.
Clay was at the end of the swamp phase of training at Camp Rudder in Florida when his group was told to get into formation.
“The battalion commander came out and addressed all of us as a class,” Clay said. “He told us what had happened, that the United States had been under a terrorist attack.”
Just like that, Clay was going to an infantry unit as a lieutenant.
“It was absolute shock. It was game-on,” he said. “It was time to get ready for what we do in the military. ‘Go to my unit and lead my soldiers’ — that was my attitude.”
Curt, meanwhile, was in a chemistry lab that morning as a freshman at West Point.
“I remember all the instructors were kind of watching the TV,” he said, “and everybody kept looking over, wondering what was going on.”
• • •
“Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.”
| U.S. Military Academy cadet prayer
• • •
Some try to find shortcuts through West Point. Not Curt Daniels.
Todd Berry, Army’s football coach at the time, said Curt lived by the words of the cadet prayer.
“He is what West Point is trying to produce,” Berry said. “Curt was the type of guy — even as a freshman — that everybody had tremendous respect for. His work ethic, commitment to the team and willingness to give himself up physically, mentally and emotionally were important. He always did things the right way.”
Although he didn’t play that day, Curt said experiencing the first Army-Navy game after Sept. 11 was special. A record crowd of 69,708, including President George W. Bush, watched Army win 26-17 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
“The nation’s eyes were on us,” Curt said. “Up until that point, we had been a nation at peace for quite a while. Everybody always talks about (participants in) the Army-Navy game being opponents on the field but brothers after you graduate. But it really wasn’t tangible until we were a nation at war.”
During his senior year at West Point, Curt’s teammates selected him team captain.
“I think it’s a great honor to be named captain, but even more so of the Army football team,” Bobby Ross, a former Chiefs assistant who coached Army during Curt’s senior year, said at the time. “This school is built upon leadership, so they’re being recognized in a very special way.”
“(Curt) went from a guy who wasn’t necessarily the most highly recruited high school athlete to being a team captain of the Army football team — a team of leaders,” Clay said.
• • •
Clay Daniels served three tours of duty in Iraq and is thankful he was never seriously injured.
“I’ve got lots of memories that I will remember forever,” he said.
“Most of them are good memories of the people that I worked with, not only the American soldiers that I worked with but some of the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi people.”
Clay said he benefited from lessons learned on the football field
“When I was a platoon leader,” he said, “I liked to think of it as a little football team and I was the coach. That’s kind of the way we ran things.”
Clay left the Army on Memorial Day weekend 2010 and now works at U.S. Engineering in Kansas City. Curt, out of the Army, too, started in business school at Harvard in August.
Both appreciate the support the military has gotten since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was a moment in time that our country changed,” Clay said.
Playing sports, Curt said, is sound preparation for youths interested in going into the military.
“A lot of these young kids who are trying to go an academy, they do a lot of great things — they are the class president and they are in Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts,” Curt said. “Go sign up for a local football team or hockey team or basketball team and learn how to be a team player. It teaches you leadership, discipline, mental toughness, physical toughness — all the intangibles you need to be a successful military soldier or officer.”
Jan remains proud of her sons’ accomplishments, both in the military and in civilian life.
“They are leaders,” she said. “They will continue to be leaders in the civilian world as they were in the Army.”