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Stephanie Okrepkie, and her son Tillman, 5, and daughter Quinn, 3, sit on the Honor Bench in Santa Rosa Memorial Park inscribed with the names of 10 service members killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan including Stephanie's father, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, who died in Iraq on Nov. 10, 2004. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

How 9/11 impacted the lives of a Santa Rosa mother, a lawmaker, two Iraq War veterans

At 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was horrified by the sight of a commercial airliner exploding into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Coming just 17 minutes after another Boeing 767 airliner loaded with fuel had struck the north tower high above the streets of Manhattan, the televised tragedy confirmed the unimaginable: an enemy assault on the financial heart of the United States.

Within the next hour, crashes at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania, where passengers aboard Flight 93 foiled the hijackers’ plan to make the Capitol their fourth target, brought the death toll to nearly 3,000. The exact toll would not be known for months.

Matthew Jensen, a 37-year-old Iraq War veteran, calls 9/11 the “Pearl Harbor of my generation.” In reality, it was a new, awful benchmark for every generation of Americans: the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history.

Jensen and three other Santa Rosans — fellow veteran Evan Kubota, Assemblyman Jim Wood and Stephanie Okrepkie, whose father died in the Iraq War — each had their lives changed in unfathomable ways by the attacks.

Their stories, of service and sacrifice, reflect the deep impact the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath continue to have on our world 20 years later.

STEPHANIE OKREPKIE: A father’s sacrifice

Fused into Stephanie Okrepkie’s memory is the Thanksgiving dinner she hosted for about 10 people in 2003, when her father, Michael Ottolini, rose to express his thanks for family and the blessings in his life.

As he sat down, Ottolini, a 45-year-old hay truck driver from Sebastopol, also said thanks for his upcoming deployment to the war in Iraq, a mission from which he never returned.

“He was kind of the glue that held this family together,” said Okrepkie, now a married mother of two.

Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol, a member of the 579th Engineer Battalion, was killed in a roadside explosion in Iraq. (File)
Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol, a member of the 579th Engineer Battalion, was killed in a roadside explosion in Iraq. (File)

Michael Ottolini also had strong ties to the California National Guard’s 579th Engineer Battalion, joining the unit his father, Dan Ottolini, had served in right after graduating from El Molino High School in 1977.

One of the unit’s senior members, Ottolini played Santa Claus at battalion Christmas parties, handing out presents to young children. He felt compelled to volunteer for the Iraq deployment to watch out for the younger troops he’d helped train, said his brother, Jay Ottolini, an Air Force veteran.

“We all knew that being a soldier came first for my dad and his family was second,” Stephanie Okrepkie said.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini was among the thousands of Reserve and Guard members — known as citizen-soldiers — called up from civilian life to meet the manpower needs for the Iraq invasion in 2003.

About 90 members of the 579th shipped out in March 2004 and eight months later, Ottolini was killed by a powerful roadside bomb that exploded under the Humvee he drove out from Camp Anaconda on a patrol Nov. 10.

He was the California National Guard’s ninth Iraq fatality and Sonoma County’s third loss in the war fought halfway around the world.

Another brother, Joe Ottolini of Windsor, said Michael was “the most levelheaded person in the family. We all looked up to him.”

Stephanie Okrepkie holds the dog tag worn by her father Michael Ottolini, a 45-year-old National Guardsman killed in Irag in 2004. Firefighters helped Okrepkie sort through the ashes of her Coffey Park home to find the dog tags, an American flag presented to her upon his death and other memorabilia from her father. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Stephanie Okrepkie holds the dog tag worn by her father Michael Ottolini, a 45-year-old National Guardsman killed in Irag in 2004. Firefighters helped Okrepkie sort through the ashes of her Coffey Park home to find the dog tags, an American flag presented to her upon his death and other memorabilia from her father. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Stephanie Okrepkie remembers her blue-eyed, sandy-haired father as a bit of a child. Coming home from high school, she would find him standing in the kitchen, smiling and waving, and asking her “What am I?”

“I’m a Michael-wave,” was his answer.

“The grief will never fully go away,” Okrepkie said, reflecting on her loss. “It’s just learning how to manage it.”

“When I married my husband, when my kids were born, he wasn’t there,” she said. “I miss him.”

Her son Tillman, 5, who just started kindergarten, was born on Nov. 10, 11 years after her father died.

Okrepkie learned she was pregnant with daughter Quinn, 3, three days after losing everything in her Coffey Park home to the Tubbs fire in 2017.

“It was a blessing, definitely a gift from God,” she said.

Both children know who “Papa Mike” is from photographs, and they know he was a soldier who died in Iraq.

Jeff Okrepkie, her husband, was a founding board member and president of Coffey Strong, the neighborhood support group that helped the subdivision rebuild from the loss of more than 1,400 homes.

The Okrepkies rebuilt a home in Coffey Park near the site of the house consumed by fire.

Twenty years ago, hearing a radio report of the World Trade Center attack as she drove to work on 9/11, then watching on her computer as the second hijacked airliner struck, Okrepkie said she struggled to grasp “the loss of lives and the destruction.”

Now, Okrepkie, who works as a paralegal at a Santa Rosa law firm, said she laments the loss of cohesiveness forged by the attack on the nation.

“Back then we came together as one,” she said. “Slowly, over the years, we’ve gotten away from that. There’s a lack of tolerance for people with differing beliefs.”

EVAN KUBOTA: Soldier turned family man

From left, Keira, 11, Evan, Katie, Rex, 1, and Julia Kubota, 8, in their Windsor home. Evan Kubota is a Montgomery High grad who joined the National Guard in 2002 and volunteered for a combat tour in Iraq. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
From left, Keira, 11, Evan, Katie, Rex, 1, and Julia Kubota, 8, in their Windsor home. Evan Kubota is a Montgomery High grad who joined the National Guard in 2002 and volunteered for a combat tour in Iraq. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

For Evan Kubota, the 9/11 attacks were all the reason he needed to join the California National Guard and volunteer for combat in Iraq.

The Bush administration’s premise for invading Iraq was flawed because there were no weapons of mass destruction, said Kubota, 36, who enlisted the summer after graduating from Montgomery High School in 2002.

But removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was reason enough, he said, for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Kubota’s warfighting experience included the grisly scene at a base near Mosul, where a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest that hurled shrapnel through a crowded mess tent, killing 22 people, including 14 U.S. troops, four American civilians, three Iraqi soldiers and one unidentified person, possibly the bomber, on Dec. 21, 2004.

Kubota, who was in line for the tent when the blast occurred, helped move the dead and injured to the base medical facility and provide care in an outdoor triage area.

The attack was so well-planned that the enemy fired rockets into the triage area, and Kubota recalls taking shelter with an injured soldier behind a concrete barrier and sticking his knife into a boarded up window to hold the man’s IV bag.

Later, he spent hours taking stretchers to helicopters for transport.

“Everybody was in shock at the attack, and the inability to get the situation under control,” he said.

The following week was filled with memorial ceremonies and a visit from the Army chief of staff.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of the start of the global war on terror, Kubota has, by his own admission, transformed into a family man with a wife, three children, a minivan and a home in suburban Windsor.

He left the National Guard as a sergeant in 2009, satisfied he had done his duty, and served as a Marin County sheriff’s deputy until 2019.

Since then, Kubota has been director of operations for Execushield, a private security company that covers 300 sites from Salinas to Redding and around the Bay Area, commuting to work in a Toyota pickup.

“My worry, my focus is now on kids, family. With the pandemic and now Afghanistan it’s almost too much to concentrate on any one of them.” ― Evan Kubota

His wife, Katie, a former Novato police dispatcher, is an at-home mom of three: daughters Keira, 11, and Julia, 8, and son Rex, 1.

“My worry, my focus is now on kids, family,” Kubota said of the drumbeat of world events. “With the pandemic and now Afghanistan it’s almost too much to concentrate on any one of them.”

Afghanistan, scene of the longest war in U.S. history, seems to be “right back where it was 20 years ago,” he said.

From left, Keira, 11, Evan, Katie, Rex, 1, Julia, 8, and Katie Kubota outside their Windsor home. Evan Kubota is a Montgomery High grad who joined the National Guard in 2002 and volunteered for a combat tour in Iraq. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
From left, Keira, 11, Evan, Katie, Rex, 1, Julia, 8, and Katie Kubota outside their Windsor home. Evan Kubota is a Montgomery High grad who joined the National Guard in 2002 and volunteered for a combat tour in Iraq. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The loss of about 176,000 lives, mostly Afghan and American, according Brown University’s Costs of War Project, is “almost unimaginable,” Kubota said.

The collapse of the Afghan government in face of a revived Taliban assault last month wasn’t surprising, he said, but the speed was “kind of unexpected.”

Another decade of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan “wouldn’t make any difference,” he said.

A majority of Americans feel the same way, according a recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. The war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, 54% of participants said in the poll, conducted from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, while 36% said it was. The results were a reversal from a Feb. 2007 poll by the same outlets, where 56% of participants said the war was worth fighting and 41% said it was not.

Iraq appears in better shape now, Kubota said, but he was dismayed by insurgent takeovers in areas where U.S. forces had helped drive out the Islamic State.

There are still 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and President Joe Biden has said their combat mission will end this year while they continue training local forces to counter remnants of the Islamic State, according to a BBC report.

Costs of war

The Costs of War Project at Brown University has calculated the economic and human costs of post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations.

Economic

$5.8 trillion – Cost of waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria, fiscal years 2001-2022

$2.2 trillion – Veterans health care costs through 2050

$8 trillion total – A stack of $1,000 bills equaling a trillion dollars would be 67 miles high, more than the distance to outer space.

Human

6,247 — U.S. military, civilian and contractor deaths (Afghanistan 2001-2021)

8,263 – U.S. military, civilian and contractor deaths (Iraq 2003-2021)

482,000 – All deaths including U.S. losses, other allied troops, national military and police, civilians, opposition fighters, journalists and humanitarian workers in Afghanistan and Iraq

America’s greatest external threat is now cyberattacks by Russia and China that are “attempting to influence the politics of other countries,” Kubota said.

The nation also faces “internal instability” from an erosion of decades of progress toward “cooperation across political lines and the advancement of us a country,” he said.

Sharp divides over the pandemic and 2020 election “have shown how deep those rifts are within our own borders,” Kubota said.

JIM WOOD: Dentist turned legislator served at World Trade Center

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat, worked as a forensic dentist in the New York City Medical Examiners Office in the wake of the World Trade Center attack prior to the start of his political career. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat, worked as a forensic dentist in the New York City Medical Examiners Office in the wake of the World Trade Center attack prior to the start of his political career. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

As part of a national emergency response team, Jim Wood headed to Manhattan in the wake of the attacks that killed 2,753 people in the fiery collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin skyscrapers.

As first responders combed through the smoldering rubble of the 110-story towers, Wood, a certified forensic dentist, worked anonymously in 12-hour night shifts at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.

The goal was to find a name for the body parts recovered from the scene of the terrorist attack that prompted a 20-year global war on terror.

Wood’s work consisted of trying to match X-rays of the remains with dental X-rays of missing persons, a task complicated by the dearth of remains coming into the morgue, compounded by the fire damage sustained in the wreckage.

Also, Wood noted, there were numerous dental offices in the twin towers where the X-ray records were destroyed.

Until last month, just 1,645 — or 60% of the victims — had been positively identified from the 22,000 body parts recovered from ground zero.

But the coroner’s office, now using advanced DNA testing, found a match for Dorothy Morgan, an insurance broker who worked in the center’s north tower. A second match came days later for a man whose name the agency did not release in accordance with his family’s wishes, the New York Times reported.

Wood, a dentist in Cloverdale for over 25 years, launched his political career as a Healdsburg city councilman in 2006 and was elected eight years later to the Assembly, representing a district that stretches from Oakmont to the Oregon border.

A Democrat, Wood won a fourth term last year with 68% of the vote.

He is still the designated forensic dentist for five North Bay counties, and handled victim identifications in the wake of the Lake County fires in 2015, the 2017 North Bay firestorm and Butte County’s Camp fire in 2018, the state’s deadliest blaze with 85 victims.

Rattled by the deaths of at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops in a terrorist attack last month at the Kabul airport, Wood said he was once again confounded by the motivation to commit mass murder.

“I don’t understand that,” Wood said, questioning why anyone could believe that “killing innocent men, women and children will take you to a better place.”

Martyrdom has been exploited by the Islamic State network as a recruitment tactic. But that twisted message is from terrorists who don’t represent Islam, Wood said.

“This is an extreme group of people,” he said. “This is not reflective of the Muslim faith.”

MATTHEW JENSEN: Advocate for war veterans

Matt Jensen, a Santa Rosa High graduate, joined the Marines in 2002 and served two combat tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 and a third tour with the National Guard in 2007. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Matt Jensen, a Santa Rosa High graduate, joined the Marines in 2002 and served two combat tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 and a third tour with the National Guard in 2007. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Matthew Jensen returned to Santa Rosa physically unscathed by three combat tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 — but he brought home the horror of war stamped in his mind.

“I get night terrors,” said Jensen, 37, who joined the Marines in 2002, a year after graduating from Santa Rosa High School. “The stuff I saw you weren’t supposed to see.”

He’d been friends at school with Jesse Williams and Patrick O’Day, both killed in Iraq combat.

Jensen, who works in the Sonoma County Veterans Service Office helping vets obtain federal benefits, still seeks counseling for the post-traumatic stress disorder that once threatened his life.

“I get night terrors. The stuff I saw you weren’t supposed to see.” ― Matt Jensen

Now, he said, he has been talking with parents of Iraq War veterans who have taken their own lives. “We call them the white star families” — a variation on the term “gold star” identifying families who lost a member in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The battles may be over, but the toll of casualties continues.

Deaths due to “direct war violence” numbered a little over 7,000 for U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

About 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide, the project said in a June 21 report.

“High suicide rates mark the failure of the U.S. government and U.S. society to manage the mental health costs of our current conflicts,” the report said.

The Costs of War Project, in a Sept. 1 report, estimated the cost of veterans health care over the next 30 years at $2.2 trillion.

Jensen, a 6-foot-2 former infantryman, served combat tours with the Marines during the Iraq invasion in 2003 and again during the bloody battle of Fallujah in 2004.

He came home in 2008 from his third tour, with the Santa Rosa-based National Guard 579th Engineering Battalion, suffering from PTSD — angry, drinking and depressed.

“I screwed a lot of things up between two years of my life. It’s just a blur,” he said in a 2011 interview.

Through the Department of Veterans Affairs, he joined substance abuse and anger management classes and started counseling.

“If I didn’t walk through the VA doors, like a lot of people don’t, I’d be in a lot worse shape,” he said in the interview. “I’d have committed suicide. I’m a lot happier now.”

The VA says 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD in a given year.

Jensen said he is now getting help from The 6 Foundation, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that specializes in trauma therapy.

Sept. 11 is “the day we all stood united,” he said, calling it the “Pearl Harbor for my generation.”

It’s a day for unity, “to say hello to your neighbor and to understand the other side and to love the country,” Jensen said. “We’re here. We’re all here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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