By Seaman Drace Wilson
September 11, 2001 changed everything for Polish native Navy Chief Petty Officer Andre Stetz who watched the Twin Towers fall 20 years ago.
In Krakow, Poland, Stetz found success working in a variety of fields, and even owned a pub at one point. He traveled as much as possible and embraced opportunities of change that life threw at him. In 1999, when a cousin invited him to visit New York City, Stetz jumped at the chance and obtained a tourist visa.
After their arrival, his cousin offered him a job for three months renovating homes in the area. It was a big decision. He couldn’t speak English and he already had a lucrative managerial job back in Poland. However, Stetz had always wanted to see the country that his father, a member of the Anti-Communism Solidarity Movement, had considered to be “one that represented freedom and democracy.”
“We both grew up in communism,” Stetz said of his and his wife’s experiences in Poland before 1989.
“Our parents had suffered through communism their entire lives. When I was a child, my father would always say ‘One day, the Americans are going to help’ and that ‘All of this communism will be over with.’ It was a big deal for me to experience that freedom and the free world.”
A New Life in the United States
Stetz was sponsored for a work visa and started to build a life in the U.S.
Through watching the news and writing down and looking up words he saw around the city, Stetz began to refine his English-speaking skills. Additionally, some of his coworkers happened to be Ukrainian and Polish themselves. Interacting with his coworkers and watching TV helped immensely, too.
“I watched movies and read books. MTV was my biggest help,” Stetz said. “I have been here over 20 years and I have never taken a single class on English.”
Stetz traveled throughout the U.S., and said he saw the beauty of the country through road trips to Florida and California. He kept delaying his return home to Poland until finally he and his wife decided to stay in the United States permanently. His wife obtained a job in the fashion industry while he continued to renovate houses.
“This was the first time we saw democracy at work and experienced the freedoms we didn’t know of as kids,” Stetz said.
A Day That Changed the World
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 started off like any other day for Stetz. He and a colleague were driving to a renovation site when the radio caught their attention.
“We heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said. “It was just unthinkable. No one had any idea what had caused it.”
Stetz drove to an observation point to get a look at the Twin Towers himself. He said that he remembered how beautiful and clear the sky was in contrast with the burning towers he now saw in front of him.
“All I could think about was the people in the [Twin] Towers, their lives, what happened and how this happened,” Stetz said. “I watched the towers go down. It was unreal.”
Stetz said that although he was able to find his wife, who had been working in a building a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, and his son, who was still under the care of the daycare owner, they couldn’t get home until later that night.
Inspired to Serve
“I was thinking about ‘What happens now?’ and ‘Was this even real?’” Stetz said. “I thought about how I came to a city that accepted me and accepted everyone from around the world and how that was destroyed. I thought, ‘What can I do; how can I make a difference?’”
Stetz decided that he could make a change by serving the nation that had welcomed him with open arms. After going through the long process of obtaining a permanent resident or ‘Green’ card’, Stetz joined the U.S. Navy in 2005 as a storekeeper, now known as a logistics specialist.
In the 15 years since, Stetz has been to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations – which includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean – on four separate deployments.
“I always look over the horizon in my life,” he said. “The Navy, to me, had the least number of limits. It meant traveling and being in the open water. I have this love for the sea, and I always have.”
On the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2020, Stetz was underway again in U.S. 5th Fleet, this time aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) in the Gulf of Oman. Stetz organized a ceremony onboard to commemorate Sept. 11 and to honor the lives lost. He also wanted to share with other sailors why he and many other service members serve in the Armed Forces today.
“I was crying my eyes out,” said Command Master Chief Lonnie Bussell, who participated in the commemoration.
“From the prayer to the singing of the National Anthem to the Three Gun Salute—it’s inspiring to stop and remember those who lost their lives and to think about what I would have done if I were inside one of those planes.”
It was important for Stetz to coordinate the event. He drafted the scripts and outlined the program.
“Sept. 11 to me, changed the way we live our lives. It’s not only a tragedy where many lives were lost, it also made people more aware, scared and conscious of each other,” Stetz said. “Something was lost…we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
-This article was originally published on DVIDSHub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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