Sue Nystrom: 'This Was My Way to Make It Right Somehow'
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Sue Nystrom discusses how Mike Cairns' courageous act inspired her to dedicate her life to passing it forward and helping others.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
PBS: What were you feeling in the days leading up to meeting Mike?
Sue Nystrom: I was very anxious. I hadn’t really told my story to any type of media in a very long time. I wanted to have a very personal conversation and it was very difficult in front of total strangers.
PBS: What were the frustrations you felt along your journey? What was the hardest part of finding Mike?
Sue: The frustrations were first, and foremost, just the amount of time it took, in terms of decades! The hardest part for sure was the uncertainty of how he would receive an intrusion on his privacy after all these years.
PBS: Now that you’ve reunited, what’s next for you and Mike?
Sue: We have stayed in contact; his wife who is just a lovely person has become a friend of mine as well. I hope to be able to visit with them in person again very soon. They both mean a lot to me. They are the best part about the whole journey!
PBS: What would you say to anyone else trying to make this kind of search? What advice or tips would you offer? Were there any lessons that you learned regarding the search process that might help others?
Sue: Be patient, be persistent, and don’t give up. Also be prepared to revisit emotions that are very uncomfortable, anxiety, fear, even grief or anger. Not toward the object of your search as much as circumstances of life and the seeming unfairness of situation(s) you had no control over. Be kind to yourself. Understand the reasons for your feelings and just FEEL them and then let the hard ones go.
"Be kind to yourself. Understand the reasons for your feelings and just FEEL them and then let the hard ones go."
PBS: Toward the end of your search, you see a video of yourself from that day when Mike brought you to safety. What was running through your mind when you watched this?
Sue: I was overwhelmed and surprised at the depth of memory. I remembered the smell of the ash, the shock of the extent of destruction, the deep grief. It was like it happened yesterday and that intensity surprised me. I was also reminded of just how kind Mike and his crew were to us, how gentle he was with my dog and the suddenness of having such a life changing moment just end with me walking away and he turning back to complete the mission.
PBS: A year after the incident, you joined the National Guard to follow in Mike’s footsteps. What did it mean for you in that moment to be able to let him in person how he inspired you and your life’s work?
Sue: Oh my gosh, it meant everything. Have you seen the movie or play “Six Degrees of Separation” or “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”? Well I have a deep belief that we touch people’s lives, and then they touch people’s lives. You can touch in a loving and positive manner or the touch can be more negative. I felt like what Mike and his crew, really the entire Washington National Guard, did that day changed my life.
"Well I have a deep belief that we touch people’s lives, and then they touch people’s lives. You can touch in a loving and positive manner or the touch can be more negative. I felt like what Mike and his crew, really the entire Washington National Guard, did that day changed my life."
It set me down a 34-year journey where I was determined to pass it forward. Touch someone in a positive way and watch that someone pass it forward.
I wanted to be the mentor and soldier that I thought Mike Cairns was. I was also heavily influenced by one of my First Sergeants John Erhardt, and those two soldiers were my role models. I probably didn’t come close to the job that they did, but I tried my best and I more than anything it was THIS that I wanted Mike to know.
PBS: The moment you give the flag to Mike is extremely poignant. Can you tell us about the ceremony where it was flown in Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan?
Sue: This was a flag raising ceremony that was held on September 11, 2006. I had the flag flown in his honor. I was almost certain that he was a combat vet (Vietnam) and although I had an idea of what he must have gone through, I didn’t really know until I was deployed to Afghanistan. It meant even more to me to be able to hand that to him in person, knowing at that time that not only was he a decorated Vet he was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in combat.
"He is a great man; he gave a lot for his country and he deserves public recognition."
He is a great man; he gave a lot for his country and he deserves public recognition. I always felt that the media hounded me for many years over something that I didn’t have any control over. I lost two beloved friends. It affected me in ways that most people will never know and I didn’t in any way want that kind of recognition. And yet the men that went toward that danger on that day and for many, many days following that were forgotten by the public and that ALWAYS bothered me. This was my way to make it right somehow.
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