Cadets Proud To Run In Siller's Footsteps

SI Advance - September 26, 2009

by Cormac Gordon

Moved by his sacrifice, the men and women of West Point will follow the hero firefighter's path tomorrow

Early tomorrow morning they'll pile off packed buses in a steady stream, stepping onto the sleepy streets surrounding Coffey Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Some 700 of them.

Young people in their late teens and early 20s, mostly, with short-cropped hair and, for the men, whisker-less faces.

They'll all be wearing the same dark shorts and Army-gray shirts, and regulation running shoes.

If you happen to be nearby, take a good, long look at the faces. At some point in the not too distant future, just about every single one of them will put themselves in real danger.

For you.

They're West Point cadets. Almost a quarter of the entire student body.

And for the last few years, like thousands of others, they've shown up on this September morning to be a part of the Stephen Siller Tunnel-to-Towers Run.

"It began back in 2005 with just a group of cadets going down to run," Eric Bernau was saying earlier this week. "But the story is so compelling, when other cadets hear it, they spring at the chance to be involved."

And so it is now that each class will run in regimental formation tomorrow.

"An honor to follow in his footsteps," said Bernau, a Minnesotan and the brigade public affairs officer, who will graduate in May.

The young people from West Point are not the only ones who feel that way.

There will be firefighters from England and cops from Australia and high school kids from California, who have, over the last seven years, turned the annual race into a cause and a statement of their own.

And thousands and thousands of New Yorkers — many of them Staten Islanders — will be there to run and to volunteer and to cheer their friends and families.

The Tunnel-to-Towers Run is organic. It just seems to grow and grow.

This weekend, well over 20,000 runners are expected.

"As many as they'll let us have," Russ Siller said the other day.

It's become a New York City happening.

And at its core is a story of one man.

By now most everyone knows the tale of the off-duty West Brighton firefighter Stephen Siller, the young father of five, who raced from Brooklyn to Manhattan on foot on that cloudless morning the buildings came down.

Of his dying right there in the early moments of the attack of 9/11.

What Siller did that morning, rush into the teeth of danger when others were understandably running in the other direction, is something that connects with the young West Pointers.

"It's symbolic," said Bernau. "To see the that sense of duty."

In many ways, it's not unlike the tale of another Islander, the Maryknoll priest Vincent Capodanno, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism on the battlefield in Vietnam.

Or the thousands upon thousands of others who have put themselves in danger in moments of crisis.

"We're drawn to it," Bernau said.

Obviously, the corps of cadets isn't the anti-America crowd we saw in the nation's capital a few weekends back.

The folks who seem to be opposed to our form of what they describe as "big government," which includes Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Veterans Administration benefits, super highways, and, I guess, a robust and expensive military.

This is a far more positive and constructive group.

"The firefighters saw what they did that day, the sacrifice they made, as their job," Bernau said. "That's important to us."

Maybe the most famous speech ever made at West Point was one given by an old soldier who had seen it all and understood his time was short.

There were no illusions in General Douglas MacArthur's May of 1962 address to the cadets.

It was basic and simple and brief.

Near the end of his life, MacArthur spoke to the assembled classes of "Duty, Honor, Country."

Later in the speech the clearly failing 82-year-old assured the next generation of American military leaders that this country's soldiers, "Need no eulogy from me or from any other man.

"He has written his own history," MacArthur said.

Stephen Siller and the others who died on 9/11 wrote their own history that day.

There will be 700 West Point cadets among the thousands tracing their footsteps tomorrow morning.

You might want to take a good look as they pass.

The best place to view the 9:30 a.m. race tomorrow is near the finish line along West Street in lower Manhattan. For more information go to