By Mr. George Markfelder (JFHQNCR/MDW)September 11, 2010
Sept. 11 is a day of reflection for most Americans. The date is seared into the collective national memory. For members of the 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company, then called the Military District of Washington Engineer Company in 2001, it is a day flooded with personal memories as well.
The Soldiers of the 911th took time out from training Friday, Sept. 10, and held a Heritage Day inside the Lakota Hangar on Ft. Belvoir's Davison Field, to look back at the events that so drastically impacted their unit on such a personal level, and to hear firsthand accounts from past company members, civilian first responders and survivors that were at the Pentagon on 9/11.
On Sept. 11th, 2001, the unit was called upon after terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the west side of the Pentagon killing 184 people. For 10 days the company was engaged in rescue and recovery operations; for which, the unit and Soldiers assigned were awarded the army Superior Unit Award.
The 911th Engineer Company was originally activated in July 1989 at Ft. Belvoir, as the Military District of Washington Engineer Company. (MDWEC) The new company was modeled after a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Heavy Task Force. Its mission is unique among engineer units within the United States Army. In November 2002, the company was reassigned to the 12th Aviation Battalion.
In 2006, the company was re-designated as the 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company in commemoration for its efforts that day. According to the current 911th company commander, Capt. Robert Crowe, commemorations of 9/11 for this engineering unit are important on many levels for the current members of the company.
"I wanted my Soldiers to hear firsthand accounts," said Crowe. "We are trained and ready, but I wanted them to hear what that day in the future might be like by listening to those first responders and Soldiers from their unit that were there that day. I also wanted to honor those individuals by inviting them to share their experiences with us as well."
Opening remarks for the day were given by former Chief of Engineers, retired Army Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, who was a Brig. Gen. assigned as Director of Military Programs for the Corps of Engineers and present at the Pentagon on 9/11.
"One lesson I learned on that day, was to always think about whether my Soldiers are ready to respond today," said Strock. "We all don't have to worry about 9/11. We have to think about 9/10. You have to be ready on the next 9/10, because on the day of a crisis, it's too late to prepare."
The Soldiers of the 911th broke into three groups to better enable more personal conversations with the first responders and past company members that were at the Pentagon on 9/11.
Group one included former company members Major Aaron Barta, commander of the unit during the attack; retired Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Gould, 1st Sgt. On 9/11; retired Sgt. 1st Class Fred Brown, Platoon Sgt on 9/11 and Sgt. 1st Class George Orange, rescuer on 9/11.
Group two included members from civilian partner agencies who responded to the call on 9/11 at the Pentagon. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief, Robert Zoldos, who was a squad leader with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue on 9/11; Charleston, South Carolina Fire Department Deputy Chief of Operations John Tippett, who was the Montgomery County Fire Department Task Force Safety Officer on 9/11 and Doctor Anthony Macintyre, Medical director for Virginia Task Force 1 - International Urban Search and Rescue and a professor at George Washington University who served as a medical officer with FEMA at the Pentagon on 9/11.
Group three included retired Army Lt. Gen. Carl Strock and retired Sgt. Maj. Leon Yarbough, 9/11 survivors from the Pentagon. Yarbough is currently an Army civilian employee working at the Testing and Evaluation Command in Alexandria. On 9/11 he was working as a Sgt. Maj. in the Information Management Support Center and only a few months from retirement.
"Are you mentally prepared for what you will see on the next call you get. That's what you need to think about," said Yarbough. "I was in my office when the plane struck the Pentagon, I survived because of the structural design of the area where I was located, and by the grace of God everyone in my division survived. I didnAca,!a,,ct know what it was at the time. Maybe a bomb. Unfortunately, my Director, Executive Officer, Personnel Specialist, Finance Specialist, and two Technicians died that day. I crawled on the floor through the heat and smoke even through holes in the walls seeking survivors."
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Fred Brown was a platoon Sgt. with the company on 9/11 and remembers how the day began.
"It started as any other day and then we heard about the towers in New York, and wondered if we would be asked to respond for assistance with search and rescue up there. Then the Pentagon was hit," said Brown. "My Mother in law was killed in the Pentagon that day but I didn't know that until I looked at the plans of the building later that day and saw where it hit. I don't care who you are, you are never prepared for a day like that. That's why my advice to today's Soldiers is to pay attention to your training. Even the little things like how many nails to use for shoring, because on the day of a rescue you need to let your training take over. You need to trust your training to get you through it."
As part of the Heritage day, the 911th Soldiers and their guests visited the Pentagon where they were addressed by the Sgt. Maj. of the Army, Kenneth Preston, and also viewed the 9/11 memorial. For some it was the first time they had been back to the Pentagon since 9/11.
"It's surreal," said Gould. "It's hard to believe it even happened. I haven't been here since that time, and it really brings it back."
According to Crowe, keeping that memory alive and in front of his Soldiers and stressing that the interoperability of the company with other responding agencies is a big part of what this Heritage day was all about. He wants his Soldiers to understand how they worked with civilian organizations on 9/11 and to hear the lessons learned from veterans like Gould and Brown in order to be better prepared for the chaos of real missions.
"We can never forget that on Sept. 10, 2001, members of the 911th were in the same position we are in today," said Staff Sgt. Jesus Cuartas, 911th operations non-commissioned officer. "We train constantly to become the best rescuers we can be and then, the next day, we have to use that training to save lives. Heritage Day helps us to keep our focus on the reality of that fact, that if called upon, we have to be ready to respond right then. There will be no more time for training."