After 32 years of service, New York National Guard Lt. Col. Michael Rodriguez says he still puts on his military uniform to honor his sister, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York 19 years ago.
“The weekend before the twin towers were attacked, we were playing volleyball with her family in Rockaway, Queens, and that would be it, the last time I would see her,” said Rodriguez, who is on his third deployment to the Middle East with the 42nd Infantry Division.
His older sister, Lisa King-Johnson, 34, and the mother of two girls, worked for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, on the 89th floor south tower.
“I remember that morning so clearly when the towers collapsed. A friend called me and asked if I was OK. I had no clue what she was talking about,” he remembered.
Rodriguez lived in Brooklyn at the time and had worked at the World Trade Center five months before the attacks.
“She told me the towers were hit by planes and on fire. I immediately left my apartment and took the subway to Manhattan and stopped on Wall Street. I kept trying to call her; she wasn’t answering,” he said. “After I hung up the phone, I looked up, and people were running and screaming away from the rubble.”
“I tried to get closer to the trade centers, but the police wouldn’t let me through,” he added.
Rodriguez knew the only way he could help search for his sister was to report to the Lexington Armory, where he was a platoon leader for Bravo Company, 105th Infantry Regiment under the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Many members of the brigade lived or worked in New York City at the time and reported to the armory before they were put on orders.
Roughly two platoons from Bravo Company deployed further downtown in two public buses.
“Our mission was to assist the New York Police Department and to help assist with security and recovery efforts. I knew this was the only way I could try to find her,” said Rodriguez.
Her body was found roughly 10 days after the collapse of the tower.
When they found the body, we knew it was her; we could tell by her wedding band … it was a cotter band her husband Jim gave her,” Rodriguez said.
“She was a fantastic mother. She was also an incredible artist. She loved to sketch, and she made a name for herself in the corporate world,” he said.
“Our family felt fortunate for all the time we had with her through the years, but we were also grateful that we were able to bury her properly and have that closure,” Rodriguez said.
In 2003, while Rodriguez was deployed to Iraq, he was asked to speak about the loss of his sister at a 9/11 remembrance event.
Rodriguez said he was able to find purpose in despair after the loss of Lisa and found meaning in serving his country.
“It was personal going to Iraq; the uniform has always been a part of my healing. Facing her loss has helped me cope, but being a part of the Army also became a way of being a part of my sister’s passing and doing my part to fight for her,” he said.
Nearly 3,000 people died on that sunny September morning. There is grief again, as he mourns another year of her being gone.
“Being back in the Middle East makes me think about her. I put on my uniform and reflect even more about her; it was so abrupt her life ending; it happened too soon,“ he said.
Lisa’s name is now etched in memory at the never-ending waterfall at the 9/11 memorial, which the family has visited.
“One of the worst days in America’s history brought the strongest bond of patriotism. My personal experience should have broken me, but instead, it only made me want to continue serving proudly for Lisa,” he said.