On August 4, President Obama awarded Colgate alumna and September 11 widow Susan Retik Ger ’90 the Presidential Citizens Medal. The award was given in recognition of her role as president and co-founder of “Beyond the 11th,” a foundation that helps support Afghan widows.
The Citizens Medal originated in 1969, and is recognized as the second highest civilian honor from the government after the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal honors Americans who have “performed exemplary deeds of service to their country or to their fellow citizens.”
According to the White House, Retik Ger received the Citizens Medal “for advancing women’s rights and the power of America’s ideals.”
Retik Ger and co-founder Patti Quigley, also widowed as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks, began “Beyond the 11th” in the fall of 2003. Retik Ger lost her husband David Retik, Colgate alumnus class of ’90, while pregnant with their third child. He died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it collided with the World Trade Center.
Initially, “Americans wanted retribution. I wanted retribution,” Retik Ger wrote in a November 2008 article for Common Ground News. But “as our war in Afghanistan progressed and the American people began learning about the horrible conditions caused by decades of wars fought on Afghanistan’s soil, [I] became increasingly interested in the Afghan people and, specifically, in the widows there.”
She had a revelation that “these women … are not our enemy,” Retik Ger wrote. “They are victims of the same cruel terrorists who attacked us. And in many ways, they are paying a far heavier price. But who was willing to offer help to the widows of Afghanistan?”
Retik Ger has answered her own call. “Beyond the 11th” is devoted to supporting programs through various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to give Afghan widows “an opportunity to learn a trade and become self-sufficient, and be able to eventually send their children to school” Retik Ger said in an interview during her August 4 visit to the White House.
“And the second part of [our] mission is really to raise awareness for the plight of the women. [The Citizen’s Medal] is an incredible honor but I hope that some of the recognition and light that is shed on “Beyond the 11th’s” work will really transfer over to the women in Afghanistan, because they’re really the ones who need all of the attention right now.”
For some, Retik Ger’s reaction to 9/11 brings to mind the spirit of her late husband.
“I believe he wouldn’t have wanted his death to be in vain. And I think that he would be very moved that this … was the path we chose instead of just turning hate into more hate,” she said in an earlier interview.
Retik Ger is currently planning “Beyond the Bike,” a commemoration of “Beyond the 11th’s” first fundraiser. This biking event will take Retik Ger and Quigley once again all the way from Ground Zero in New York to Boston, where David Retik’s plane took off nearly ten years ago. They plan to take the trip next year on September the 11, marking a decade since the attack.
The positive and compassionate spin that Retik Ger has managed to put on personal tragedy is apparent in all of her accomplishments. In the words of her White House bio, “her strength of spirit [after losing her husband] has healed hearts and fostered mutual understanding.” But she puts the weight of her actions in different terms, as one individual helping similar individuals.
“You know, being a woman, it doesn’t matter what country you come from, if you are being widowed, it’s similar shared experience. And so I thought, as many people had helped us, maybe I could reach out and help them,” Retik Gier said.