Chapter 5 Life got real, real fast!
Updated: Nov 29, 2019
“What separates us from the animals, what separates us from the chaos is our ability to mourn people we’ve never met”. ~David Levithan
All veterans are worthy of respect but not all veterans are worthy of praise.
This will be the first of several points that I will lead to over the portions of this story. This is meant as no disrespect to anyone who ever put a uniform on to support our nation. However, it is a point that I certainly hope some people take heed.
Simply put, there are many who serve and yet never really face the severity of the risk but there are many who from day to day face the certainty of bad things. Something I have noted a lot over the last several years is that there are a lot of veterans using their service as a tool for recognition and success. It amazes me that most of the time these are the same people who never truly faced the daily risk.
There are two strong opinions to this, 1 how dare they make themselves out as a hero when they never faced a hero’s risk, how dare they place themselves on a pedestal when so many left their souls on foreign soil. How dare they when many of us left our blood and sweat amongst those souls. 2- why do the people commit so quickly to recognizing a “hero” yet they never look farther than a person’s word.
The fact is, even with the good intent of recognizing someone who served the real motivation is selfish. Most of these organizations recognize only to promote themselves and their own desires, they give no more than words of support and they only support those who they feel are worth their gain. As I said before we will touch on this more in the future.
By now the realities of the attacks of September 11th were real, we had pulled guard on important places and faced the reality that things were going to be rough, just how rough we had no idea.
The next day as we continued our guard rotation and faced each 3 hours stretch after a short nap. Sleep was such a priority getting undressed or taking boots off was just not an option. When your sleep hour came up, doing all that work meant cutting into your time to rest. You would have a 5-minute walk back to your barracks so if you flopped yourself in your bed you could grab 40 minutes.
Everything in the Army is 10 minutes prior, so by the time you made it to your bed you had 55 minutes left, if you avoided any additional tasks you could flop down get your 40 minutes and be up in time to wash your face straighten up your uniform get dressed and be out for muster 10 minutes prior to your report time.
As the third day came, we had another additional task assigned to our day, we would now continue our guard but in addition, we would be going back to the Pentagon in the evenings to assist in recovery operations. Around 4 in the afternoon our entire platoon rallied up in front of our barracks where we received our first brief. We were told that the fires in the building had been put out and it was now deemed safe to begin recovery from the wreckage. The brief went on to say that we would be trucking over and placed in a holding area, once there we would receive further briefings on specific tasks.
Finally, we were told that we were only required to bring an assault pack with an additional uniform to include socks and T-shirts.
Within the hour we were loading up on trucks and on our way back to the scene. It was during this ride that we first began to see how much the American people supported us. Shortly upon merging on to highway 395 the traffic whizzed by us, each car that passed honked and exclaimed their support!
Once we arrived at the scene, we were immediately moved to a holding area and given a short brief from a gentleman who was obviously a government high up. This brief was nothing more than we were to be ready for our first internal shift in the next couple of hours. It was explained that we were free to roam around and eat as we wanted but we should be prepared for our next brief at any time.
We were then walked to a military tent and informed that this would be our staging area. Inside it was dark, the floor had been lined with wooden pallets, the area had the distinct smell of sweat and mildew mixed with the lingering smell of burning undertone with the distinct continued of the smell of jet fuel.
We each claimed our space by placing our assault pack on the floor then we all made a mad rush to find food, a real meal just might have been the most moral boosting news we had received in days. As sad as it is to say one of the best things about the disaster was that the support provided during it all was amazing. Numerous food chains and support organizations rallied at the Pentagon shortly after it happened, this meant we ate good and received a lot of necessities that we had gone without. The military PX had put up a place to get fresh socks and other toiletries which were super handy plus a major steak house chain brought in a trailer to serve us meals, we also had the option of numerous fast-food chains that also brought in food trucks or trailers.
Of course, with steak on the menu that was an easy choice! With a belly full of warm good food sleep was a monster that could not be fought off. Laying down in our holding tent was the first lengthy amount of sleep we had received in a couple of days. It was here that the first sign of trouble came, immediately it was nightmares of the events over the last couple of days.
A couple of hours of rest sure did the ticket, we were woken from our slumber with information that our shift inside had come and we were to meet outside for our brief. This brief was much more intense, we were warned of the severe dangers of the places we were going to be, we were also shocked with the warnings of what we might see. We then all lined up and made our way to the preparation tents. Here we were issued Tivex suits and respirators. Once dressed in our safety gear we all commenced to duct taping the sleeves around our wrists and doing the same around our boots. Almost immediately the heat of the evening and the muggy D.C. air had the sweat pooling up in the souls of our boots. Sweat or not we were lined up and led to our first real exposure of the severity.
Broken up in small teams we waded our way through the wreckage of both the plane and the building, as we worked our way to where the mass of the plane still existed we were instructed by recovery experts to move pieces to a variety of places around the wreckage. These small piles grew and grew as we worked our way farther into the wreckage. As my team worked, we were instructed to move a filing cabinet back out of the way, immediately upon lifting the cabinet reality hit like a ton of bricks. Under the cabinet remained. Out of respect, I will not go deep into describing what we had discovered but I will explain that no person should have to die in that fashion and that memory will forever be implanted in my memories.
Immediately upon discovering the remains all work stopped, the causality affairs team immediately stepped in and took over. During their work, we stayed there waiting to provide any assistance that was needed. Once they went through there process, we then assisted with moving the victim back to the collection point. Fortunately, this was also the end of our shift. In what had seemed to be hours of work was only an hour. They limited our shifts to 1-hour stretches for whatever reason.
Decontamination was as much of a job as the actual recovery, for 30 minutes we were cleaned off, sprayed, and inspected. Finally, we were released back to our holding area. Once there exhaustion should have made it easy to sleep but what I had just experienced made sleep very hard.
Over the next few days, it was pretty much the same thing, all day pulling guard then the evening 1 or 2 one-hour shifts pulling around the wreckage and finding remains. Over time it seemed like day and night all ran together. After a week of this painful schedule, we were told that we were headed in for our final recovery shift. It was during this shift that my mental resolve would be tested to its maximum.
By now most of the main wreckage had been removed, a lot of the shifts had turned into sweeping and shuffling pieces around. As we made our way in, we were instructed to move big portions of a wall back outside. We were warned that on the other side of the wall was a portion of the building that had not yet been reached and no one was sure what was there. Because there was a somewhat accurate count of people missing, we knew that there were a few still unaccounted for so the chances of us finding them were very high.
About 20 minutes into moving portions of the wall we broke through into a dark room, immediately upon moving a part of the wall the horrible smell of moisture and decay came rolling through the gap. As the light filtered through the hole across the small room remains were pinned to the wall. A feeling of emptiness overcame, there was no choice but to keep working feverishly trying to create a path so that this victim could be removed. Casualty affairs came in and worked on crawling over so that they could begin their jobs. Meanwhile, we did what we could to assist. As we made room, we eventually made it to what was left of a desk, while moving the top of the desk from its small stack of drawers a teddy bear fell on the dirty ground. On this bear, I will never forget reading the words, Daddy.
By now the impact and the agony of things were set in deep. In a way it was good that our shift had come to an end and in the back of my mind I knew I would not have to go back in there again, but our duties were not done.
Next, we will talk about a few days away from the Pentagon and pulling lots of guard. I will share with you how when great leadership does great things a small element can move mountains. We will also talk about our final exposures to the tragedy.
Earlier it was eluded to about the first stages of nightmares, the fact is that a few nightmares is not a telltale sign of PTS but they are often one sign that should not be ignored. I felt that telling anyone that I was experiencing these would be showing weakness and a lack of loyalty to others, because of this I kept silent.