U.S. Troops Respond to Tragedy as Units, Individuals
By Maj. Mike Paoli, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
NEW YORK, Sept. 20, 2001 They don't stand out, but many National Guard and Reserve members are here at "Ground Zero." They wear the uniforms of firefighters, city and state police officers and other public services.
A weary New York Army National Guard soldier takes a break from clearing debris resulting from the terrorist airliner crashes into the twin 110-story towers of the World Trade Center in New York City Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by Capt. Jim Fabio, USAF.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Sparsely scattered among hundreds of volunteers are also those in battle dress uniforms. They are publicly distinguished from each other only by the words above their pockets -- "U.S. Marines," "U.S. Army," "U.S. Air Force," "U.S. Navy."
Most of those in uniform are individual guardsmen and reservists on the volunteer "chain hauls," the human chains that remove rubble or bring in supplies. Some are active- duty military members from local recruiting stations or civilian school assignments.
One airman took leave, drove 12 hours from his duty station in Missouri and, by early morning the day after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center here was just another shadowed worker on a hill of rubble.
Sgt. 1st Class Earl Peeples of the Army Reserve had been looking forward to some sleep the morning of Sept. 11. He was leaving his night job as an operations analyst at Citibank in the Wall Street area when the first hijacked airliner slammed into the nearby trade center's north tower.
A communications expert with the 112th Field Artillery in Toms River, N.J., Peeples immediately drove the 86 miles home to retrieve his uniform, gloves, web harness and other useful gear. By Tuesday evening Peeples was assisting New York City police officers in setting up a security perimeter around the disaster area.
He then joined the chain hauls in the 16-acre area of devastation, passing buckets of debris throughout the night and much of the following day before exhaustion set in.
"I found a nice, quiet spot in Battery Park where I could lay my head," Peeples said. He was up again a few hours later, conducting a search of the damaged American Express Building before again joining the "guys" atop the rubble.
"I think everyone was a little afraid at first," said Capt Brent Unger, an instructor with the 440th Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment in Columbia, Mo. "We started out slow, but once we got together out on the pile and started working, we got momentum."
"The camaraderie I felt, it was like we were all in the military," said New York native Navy Petty Officer 1st class Shannon Smith. "People constantly bringing water to drink or pour over your neck, or sandwiches."
Smith recalled his high school summers working in the World Trade Center. Now an active-duty administrator at the Undersea Warfare Unit in Brooklyn, he and fellow sailors joined a debris chain haul near the tall, silver-frame remains of the south tower.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andre Alston walked the perimeter of Ground Zero. A reserve chaplain with Marine Air Wing Group 49 in Willow Grove, Pa., he stopped rescue workers who seemed in need of comfort and encouragement.
"If they want to talk, we talk," said Alston, an eighth- grade teacher and former New Yorker. "If they want to pray, we pray, right in the middle of the street. A firefighter just cried, and I held him."
Alston said the most common question he received was, "Why?" He said he doesn't have an answer, but he did have a response.
"Out of tragedy there's always a purpose," Alston said. "I hope the tragedy of the loss of all these lives will unify our nation and break down the barriers that divide us."
After seven days, 50,000 tons of debris had been removed from Ground Zero. The volunteers were at work then, they are today, and they will be tomorrow and likely many more tomorrows to come. Individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, some are putting their military training to use while others simply provide physical and moral strength.
"We're not heroes, we're just Americans trying to help other Americans," said Brooklyn resident Air Force Senior Airman Edward Blunnie, a reservist and full-time U.S. Postal Service employee. "Until everyone is accounted for, we're going to work night and day to find our countrymen."
(Maj. Mike Paoli is assigned to Air Force Public Affairs, New York Office.)