Sept. 11 changed everything for Polish native Chief Logistics Specialist Andre Stetz who watched the Twin Towers fall 19 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 arrival in the United States, 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,” said Stetz 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.”
Stetz was sponsored for a work visa. 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,” said Stetz. “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,” said Stetz, who settled comfortably into life in the U.S. with his wife and young son.
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,” said Stetz. “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,” said Stetz. “I watched the towers go down. It was unreal.”
Stetz said that 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 weren’t able to get home until later that night.
“I was thinking about ‘What happens now?’ and ‘Was this even real?’” said Stetz. “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 store keeper, now known as a logistics specialist. In the 15 years since, Stetz has been to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations on four separate deployments.
“I always look over the horizon in my life,” said Stetz. “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 attacks, 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 on board to commemorate Sept. 11 and the lives lost and 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,” said Stetz. “Something was lost…we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Sterett is part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean and three critical chokepoints to the free flow of global commerce.