For the past three years, senior Kyle Walker has started his morning each Sept. 11 by running 110 sets of stairs in Kenan Stadium to commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
The pandemic this year wasn’t going to stop him and his fellow Army ROTC cadets from continuing that tradition to pay respect to the men and women who lost their lives on 9/11 and those who have died serving the country since.
On Friday morning, Walker joined his senior class of cadets for the annual 9/11 Stair Climb in the stadium. Wearing face masks, they climbed 2,076 stairs in honor of the steps in each of the World Trade Center towers.
“This is important to me because this is a day of remembrance, and it’s been a tradition for my class since we were freshmen,” said Walker, the battalion commander of Carolina’s Army ROTC.
Local first responders typically join cadets for the event, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Army ROTC battalion elected to host a much smaller stair climb this year, with only its 15 seniors.
Still, the first responders were on the runners’ minds.
“We’re really sad that we couldn’t do this with our first responder colleagues,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Hurd, professor of military science, who ran alongside the future Army officers. “I think that’s the worst part of doing it alone today, but they’re in our memory, and every time we hit one of those stairs, we think of what this day means to them as well.”
Hurd said that the event pays tribute to human valor and the sacrifice of our country’s first responders and service members. Not hosting the stair climb in some way wasn’t an option for the battalion. It was an obligation, he said.
Though many of the ROTC cadets who climbed the stairs Friday morning are barely old enough to have their own memories of Sept. 11, 2001, Hurd said continuing to reflect on the day and what it has meant to the country is crucial for the students who will soon be leaders in the military.
“Commemorating impactful events like this gives us a shared understanding of them, so they understand their role as an officer in the Army, they understand the Army’s mission and they understand what the Army has been through in protecting our country since 9/11,” he said. “When they leave the University of North Carolina and go to their units, they’re going to be serving with soldiers who have been deploying back and forth to the Middle East and they need to understand what those soldiers have been through and what they’re going to go through together.”
Walker took that message seriously. He ran the stairs carrying the Army flag in honor of the service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks. For Walker, who served four years of active duty in the Army before enrolling at Carolina and is the son of a firefighter, the stair climb was an opportunity to reflect.
Even after three years of participating in the event, Friday’s morning run in a face mask led to a better understanding and appreciation of what first responders may have experienced that day.
“I was thinking about how difficult it was for the firefighters and first responders going up those towers with all the smoke,” Walker said. “Even though I’m just wearing a cloth mask, I can only imagine what it was like for them and not being able to breathe, carrying all that equipment — sometimes even other people — up and down those stairs. I was thinking about [my father], I was thinking about family and all of those who lost loved ones that day.”