Troops on Front Line in War on Terror Reflect on Sept. 11
By Sgt. 1st Class Darren D. Heusel, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Sep. 11, 2004 On a bright, sunny day three years ago today, the world changed forever when terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and transformed them into weapons of mass destruction.
Army Spc. William Turgeon of Palm Bay, Fla., escorts a local
national on the Kabul compound as part of his force protection duties. Turgeon,
a member of A Battery, 265th Air Defense Artillery at Fort Stewart, Ga., is
serving in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo by Sgt. 1st
Class Darren D. Heusel, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Today, troops serving on the frontline in the global war on terror in Afghanistan where the evil plot originated shared their first-hand experiences from the Combined Forces Command Afghanistan Headquarters here.
Army Spc. William Turgeon of Palm Bay, Fla., was a junior at Bay Side High School and was getting ready to attend his American history class that day when terrorists steered the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Like many Americans, he experienced a range of emotions from fear and anxiety to anger and depression.
Turgeon harnessed those feelings, however, and decided to join the U.S. Army; he now finds himself providing force protection at the Kabul compound as a member of A Battery, 265th Air Defense Artillery out of Fort Stewart, Ga.
"We started watching TV, and we could see the World Trade Center on fire," Turgeon recalled. "As we were watching, a second plane flew into the towers. When a fourth plane crashed in the field in Pennsylvania, everybody realized we were being attacked, so they let us out of school."
Turgeon said he called his mother and "she started freaking out" because his grandmother was supposed to be on the plane from Boston to Orlando that crashed into one of the twin towers. But fate had intervened.
"She ended up staying behind an extra day to take care of my great-grandmother, who got sick earlier in the day," he said. "Naturally, we were all very relieved and very grateful. That day changed my whole family."
Turgeon said he feels happy to be in Afghanistan, but said at times he still gets angry when he hears about other attacks on innocent civilians.
"I just want to go back home and know I did my part," he said. "This is history in the making."
Army Col. John O'Dowd of Bergenfield, N.J., had assumed command of the New York District of the Corps of Engineers in July of that year and was working on the 24th floor of the corps headquarters in Federal Plaza, just six blocks away from ground zero when the attacks occurred. O'Dowd said once it became obvious he wasn't going to be able to conduct emergency operations from his current location, he moved to one of the corps' 11 nearby barges and set up a command post on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
He estimates his crews ferried some 3,000 people back and forth from Manhattan to New Jersey that day alone. Later that evening, he said, he received a call to help support the New York Police Department with refueling efforts. The following day, his crews helped to remove the pile of rubble he estimates was between seven to eight stories tall. O'Dowd said there was no way the debris could be moved by land, so his crews cleared three locations by dredging the harbor so his boats could help ferry the debris across the river.
"Within a couple of days, we had about 150 Corps of Engineers personnel from all over the country and as far away as Honolulu coming in to help," he said. O'Dowd said his crews moved the 1.3 million tons of debris to nearby Fresh Kills, N.J., where it took almost a year to sift through.
"We took over operations at Fresh Kills, which basically amounted to a crime scene because we had to come up with a way to sift through the debris down to three-quarters of an inch to look for personal effects, personal remains and evidence," he said.
O'Dowd said his crews found tens of thousands of personal effects, including wedding bands, wrist watches and credit cards, but "it's a wonder at all how anything could have survived that attack." He said more than 1.6 million manhours went into the operation with only one minor injury.
"That's pretty incredible, given the fact that we had 30,000 people come through there over the course of a year for a common cause," O'Dowd said.
The total cost of the project came to $75 million, but O'Dowd said it came in under budget and faster than anyone anticipated.
O'Dowd is the staff engineer for Combined Forces Command Afghanistan and commander for the Afghan Engineering District. He said he asked to come to Afghanistan, adding, "I don't think you can be in the Army, in particular after 9/11, and not feel a little mad, and in some cases, guilty. This is where it originated. It's real obvious to me why we're here.
"I have a 10-year-old daughter at home," he continued, "(who) wonders if people are going to fly planes into buildings any more. I'd like to think the answer is no, and that kids won't have to worry about that."
U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Steve Evans of New Orleans was stationed at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., 15 miles from the Pentagon. He was in the middle of a counseling session when the attacks occurred.
Over the next several days, he said, he spent three 12-hour shifts ministering to rescue workers and witnessing "the dogged determination of those who were committed to recovering from this sucker punch."
"I was just one of the many chaplains who were enormously committed in the wake of that tragedy," Evans said. "It was amazing to see how the best in each person came out and the true generosity of the American spirit."
At the Pentagon, Evans said he and other members of the ministry team were notified each time a body was discovered in the rubble. He said they'd go in and remove it "in a dignified way," a process that was repeated many times throughout the day.
"In the past three years, I think the American people have not only recovered, but have strengthened their resolve and determination to do everything we can to prevent this from happening again," he said.
Evans is the command chaplain for CFC-A, but he said he never imagined himself serving in the country where it all began. "When the Navy chief of chaplains asked me if I wanted to come to Afghanistan, I was surprised," he said. "I talked to my wife, and just as we responded to the call for Desert Storm, the answer was the same 13 years later."
Evans said he has mixed emotions about being in Afghanistan, but he mostly feels honored to serve on the front lines. "I'm also very humble in that I wonder if I'm able to uphold the high ideals our servicemembers possess," he said. "Afghanistan is a place where uncommon valor is a common virtue and a place where extraordinary sacrifices are ordinary occurrences."
Army Maj. Christopher Grell, a reservist from Buffalo, N.Y., was working as a resource manager at the Pentagon when he heard a "muffled boom" the day the building was hit.
"I was sitting at my desk that morning, and had heard rumors about the towers getting hit," he said. "I came out of the building and you could see smoke and fire. "Twenty people who I knew personally were killed, including my immediate supervisor. It was very emotional."
Grell spent 12 years on active duty before becoming a reserve individual mobilization augmentee. But the events of Sept. 11 have convinced him to go back on active duty once his tour as the resource manager for CFC-A is complete.
"The weeks after, with all the memorial services, it was kind of surreal," he said. "It was good to see how quickly everybody came together. Most of us were back to work the next day. That's kind of the direction we were given."
Remnants of the Taliban remain in the country where the Sept. 11 attacks originated. But according to a recent Asia Foundation survey, 86 percent of Afghans believe life is better now than it was just two years ago, and 90 percent believe it is better now than five years ago under the repressive Taliban regime.
The 17 provincial reconstruction teams deployed throughout the country have the U.S.-led coalition working hand-in-hand with the Afghan government to bring continued security and stability to the country.
Coalition efforts have made it possible for 10.6 million citizens to register to vote in the landmark Oct. 9 presidential elections -- 41.3 percent of them women. Some 2.3 million refugees have returned to their homes, and 5 million children the opportunity to get an education.
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Darren D. Heusel is a member of the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)