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The Right Name for a Very-Right Award

I have to admit, when I got the e-mail notice that DHS Secretary Napolitano had established the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience, I went, “Huh? What’s this about?”

I drew a complete blank at the name. For the life of me, as I stood there looking at my Blackberry, I could not recall who this person was. I’m someone who takes great pride in knowing my 9/11 history and the various players of that fateful day, and in a moment of a busy business day and Blackberry e-mail haste, I forgot one of the truly epic heroes of the day that changed us all. I’m especially embarrassed by that fact given I’ve used his life and actions in numerous speeches and writings in previous years.

Rick Rescorla was an American hero long before he safely evacuated over 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. He wore this nation’s Army uniform in Vietnam in some of its most ferocious fights. His bravery and example were featured in James B. Stewart’s book, Heart of a Soldier, and it even put him on the cover of the Gen. Hal Moore’s and Joseph Galloway’s book, We Were Soldiers Once, which later became a feature film with Mel Gibson.

It’s an amazing path that a man born and raised in England who would join Her Majesty’s Army at the age of 16 and fight in Cyprus and Rhodesia before he ended up in Southeast Asia would find himself at the center of two of the most infamous terrorist incidents in American history – the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the more deadly and catastrophic encounter that would claim his life and 3,000 others on September 11.

All of us undoubtedly are the product of the experiences that make up our lives, and in the case of Rick Rescorla, he took his experiences to prepare the people that were in his care when he became Morgan Stanley’s Vice President for Security. Recognizing that terrorists would be back to finish the job they did not complete when a truck bomb failed to bring down the towers of the World Trade Center in 1993, Rescorla instituted preparedness and evacuation drills for the employees in his charge. He made sure all of them knew where the stairwell exits were; where the rally points post evacuation were; and that they could all get out in a timely and orderly fashion.

If you read the 9/11 Commission Report or talk to any of the people who were in the Towers that morning, the words “confusion” and “chaos” can best describe what people were experiencing as all hell was breaking loose. That was not the case for Rick Rescorla’s people. While certainly frightened at what was happening around them, they knew what to do because they were prepared.

I’m sure it had to have been a world-class pain in the you know what to have someone bark at you and your fellow employees that as part of an evacuation drill, you had to walk down the stairs from the 44 stories where your desk resided in the Trade Center. Those long walks down the stairs were a regular action by Rescorla that he drilled employees on several times a year. I also have no doubt there were a number of people that rolled their eyes, swore at him and even ridiculed him for implementing those procedures. The truth is his actions made every difference in the world to Morgan Stanley and the more than 2,700 families that had a loved one come home to open arms on the evening of September 11, 2001.

The reasons for that relief and satisfaction can be described as “resilience” at their very core, but they can probably be better described simply as Rick Rescorla.

Tragically, for a number of reasons, there were more than 3,000 families, for various reasons, that did not have similar feelings of relief that day.

There are far more epic histories and words written about Rick Rescorla than I could ever write, but putting this particular award in his name may be one of the best and smartest things Secretary Napolitano could have ever done.

Preparedness and resilience may seem to be an all too familiar buzzword in too many places today. I know to others it’s a “fad” or “phase” that will simply fade away until some new word or trend comes along. The truth is the actions that are preparedness and resilience never go out of style. They are always in vogue.

Fortunately, we have a number of names and examples that are testament to the return on investment that preparedness and resilience can offer to those who invest in it and make it part of their personal and business plans. I can name several people and friends, living and deceased, who could be deserving of having their names affixed to an award like this, but DHS and the Secretary got this absolutely right when they selected Rick Rescorla as its namesake.

He was not born in this country, but he became an integral part of it; he saw an opportunity to lead, share, and safeguard his friends and colleagues and did it with fervor; he gave others hope in the worst of conditions so that lives could go forward even if it meant losing his own.

I can think of no better testament than that of a resilient life well lived and a name that should never be forgotten.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More