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Memorial Mission After Brother's Loss

Article - Thursday, August 11, 2011

On a recent summer evening, Jim Laychak crouched down and plunged his hand into the small pool beneath a bench at the Pentagon Memorial to clear away tiny stones that had fallen into the water.

"There's his name," Laychak said as he rose, pointing to the words "David W. Laychak" engraved on the bench dedicated to his brother.

"You never know what life has in store for you," he said later.

Ten years ago, Laychak was living in Arlington, Virginia, working as a consultant. He said that even though he didn't know it then, everything he had done in his professional career was preparing him for this special task -- creating the Pentagon Memorial.

Jim Laychak

On Sept. 11, 2001, Laychak was watching the news before work with his wife, Lynn, and saw the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. "As soon as you saw that, you knew something was wrong," he said.

A half hour later, he said he and his family felt the windows of their Arlington home shake, and they heard an explosion. "I said, 'I bet that was the Pentagon.'"

And it was.

At the time, Laychak didn't know that his brother, a civilian employee for the Army, was in the Pentagon because workspaces had been in flux while the building was undergoing renovations. But Laychak's brother Mike and father, Bob, who had each previously worked there, knew David's workspace had been hit as soon as they saw pictures of the crash.

"I just kept hoping that he was going to come walking down the street," Laychak said. But as the hours passed that day and his brother hadn't called, he said the sinking feeling became more pronounced.

Laychak quickly traveled to be with David's wife, Laurie, to help support their children, Zachary, 9, and Jennifer, 7, and to make phone calls to family members.

In the weeks that followed, Laychak attended meetings twice daily in Crystal City, Virginia, for families of those who had died in Pentagon attack. He said that even in those first weeks, people were asking, "What are we going to do to remember this?" Laychak floated an idea to rebuild the damaged portion of the Pentagon in black marble as a sort of architectural armband, along with other ideas, and was soon asked to be part of a steering committee for a memorial.

The memorial would soon become the focus of Laychak's life.

 At first, Laychak took off one day a month from his job at Accenture, a consulting firm, to work on development and fundraising for a Pentagon memorial. But after the Pentagon Memorial Fund was created in 2003, with Laychak as its president, the pace quickened, and he asked for a leave of absence that would permit him to work half-time at the consulting firm. Accenture executives agreed to the work arrangement.

And that's how Laychak spent the next five years of his life.

What started out as one day a month of volunteering to work on the memorial turned into his spending 50, 80, and even 100 percent of his professional time focused on the memorial while Accenture continued to pay his salary as a consultant. 

He said there was never a question whether he would make the memorial his new focus.

"I always still look at it as being at the right place at the right time to help out," Laychak said, explaining that he was perfectly suited for the project, given his experience. Of course, it also meant a great deal to him personally.

"How am I going to live my life to honor my brother's memory?" Laychak said he asked himself after Sept. 11.

He and his three siblings (two brothers and one sister) grew up in a military family -- their father served in Vietnam -- but Laychak himself didn't serve in the military. For him, he said, he viewed the memorial as his chance to give back.

"In a way, this was how I could serve the country," he said.

[ Photos: More images of the Pentagon and Pentagon Memorial ]

On Sept. 11, 2008, the memorial was officially dedicated and opened to the public. Today, visitors can walk the memorial grounds, located beside the Pentagon facade that was hit by the plane, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There, an engraved bench for each of the 184 victims sits over its own pool of flowing water amid a gravel surface marked by trees.

Laychak described the memorial, which was designed to capture the exact moment the plane struck, as a place of "solace" and "healing."

"You realize when Dave died how quickly things change," Laychak said. "You wish you could stop and slow down a little bit more. But that's part of what the memorial is about -- to give people a chance to slow down and stop, turn off their cell phones, stop answering the texts for a little bit, and just kind of sit and reflect, think about what happened here, and think about your own life and your loved ones."

Laychak said Sept. 11 prompted him to try to be a better father and husband, to personally slow down and to try not to let things bother him as much as they may have before. He says he still works to be more "present" for his family -- to put away the laptop on family vacations and to offer his family members his full attention. He admitted that his involvement in the memorial at times resulted in great personal strain.

He said that while he was working on the project, he was essentially "away" from his wife, daughter, and son. "I was preoccupied because there was always something on my mind," Laychak said. "It was tough for my wife. You're thinking about this the whole time. This was the project that you kind of throw your whole life into."

Today, Laychak has a new full-time job as chief operating officer at Center City Public Charter Schools, a collection of six schools in Washington, D.C. But Laychak's involvement as the Memorial Fund president continues. He has hopes that the memorial will one day add a visitor's center, noting that a recent group of sixth-grade visitors revealed they weren't aware that a plane had hit the building.

When asked if a day goes by now that he doesn't think of his brother or Sept. 11, Laychak said it's easier today than it was back when he talked about his personal experience and that of the other victims' families every week.

"The pain never goes away," he said.

Laychak remembers his brother Dave as a great father and husband, but also as a guy who made everyone feel like his best friend, loved sports, sang patriotic songs on car trips, and grew up thriving on competition with his brothers.

Events still jog Laychak's memory of his brother -- a particular song, for example. But Laychak says it's not as sad as it used to be.

"We've got this place," he said, waving his hand out at the memorial as planes from nearby Reagan National Airport roared overhead. "And you realize that he'll always be remembered, and it's a permanent memorial to him and everybody else that died here. So you feel a great sense of accomplishment. He probably would have done the same thing for me."

 

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