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Learning to live after trauma: Pentagon survivor offers hope to Navy Yard workers

Rafael Matos (Courtesy Rafael Matos)

WASHINGTON – Rafael Matos is a double survivor with a message.

He was in the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 terror attacks and was locked-down at the Navy Yard during Monday’s shooting rampage.

Along the way, this Navy officer turned psychologist from Ellicott City, has learned a great deal about what is known as “survivor guilt.”

Matos remembers the thoughts that went through his own head during those traumatic times.

“My personal experience was initially getting this sense of disbelief that these individuals were killed around me and I was spared,” he says.

Questions began to spin around his brain: “Why not me? Why them and not me?” he wondered, as he tried to make sense out of all that had happened.

In time, he realized that it was best to respond by making the most of his life, and doing all he could to help others. Since the 2001 attacks, he earned his doctorate in psychology, became an active volunteer with the Livestrong cancer charity and launched a blog called “Alive and Not Guilty.”

Matos’ hope is the blog will guide others dealing with the anxiety they feel after enduring a trauma or loss. He worries that too many survivors feel “that they are not worthy, it should have been them, that they should not be here.”

Matos says those thoughts can lead to a deep depression, and require psychological help. He says the goal for survivor should be to just try to make the most out of every day.

“Realize it is OK to be alive, it is OK to survive this kind of event and cherish life for what it is because we are here for a reason, and that was not our day.”

Matos says those who survived earlier ordeals — like the Sept. 11 attacks — have much to offer those who endured the nightmare at the Navy Yard. He urges them to share their stories, and how they got on with their lives.

Survivors should also take advantage of all the counseling being offered by the military. He says official word has gone out the help is available not just for employees, but family members as well.

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