Old Guard Soldiers Perform Grim Pentagon Mission
By Staff Sgt. Michele Hammonds, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
THE PENTAGON, Sept. 19, 2001 Under normal circumstances, the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) is known best as a ceremonial unit. Its soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at nearby Arlington National Cemetery. They take part in parades and commemorations. But ceremonial uniforms were put away in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon that claimed 188 lives and injured hundreds more.
In the days after the attack, Old Guard soldiers could be seen marching in single files over terrain strewn with debris toward the site where a hijacked passenger plane smashed into one of the building's five sides. The soldiers wore face shields, protective breathing masks and white biological protection garments over their battle dress uniforms. Dust and soot covered their yellow protective boots. And they faced the grim task of sifting through the rubble to recover the remains of victims.
Soldiers from the Old Guard went on alert with the first attack, but were not sent to the Pentagon immediately, Staff Sgt. Mark Erwin said. As firefighters battled the blaze caused by the impact of a fully fueled American Airlines Boeing 757, another Military District of Washington unit was assembling, the MDW Engineer Company.
Old Guard's Company B deployed along with the engineers at 11:30 a.m., less than two hours after impact. As firemen fought the blaze, a section of the building collapsed. The task of the MDW soldiers was to take part in search and rescue operations, finding survivors and bringing them to safety.
Four days into the response, when it became evident that all possible survivors had been removed from the building, Old Guard soldiers turned their attention to assisting in recovery efforts, locating and marking spots for evidence collection specialists and mortuary affairs personnel to come and do their work. Soldiers from the unit's eight companies have rotated in shifts, arriving and departing at the Pentagon in camouflaged military trucks.
For Pfc. Daniel Cooper, 21, whose normal job it is to be part of high-visibility ceremonies as a member of the Presidential Marching Platoon, aiding in the Pentagon recovery operations came as a shock.
"It doesn't seem real. This is the Pentagon and this isn't supposed to happen," he said. "Everything is torn down and in shambles."
Another member of the platoon, 20-year-old Spc. Joshua Lee Behrens, was also taken aback by the results of the terrorist attack.
"It's a mess inside. It's like hell on earth. You can't see anything. It's dark and dusty, there's asbestos, and it smells real bad," Behrens said. "Everything's drenched in water, everything is charred."
Among other Old Guard tasks is Pentagon tour guide duty, and some of Behrens' fellow Old Guard soldiers were inside the Pentagon when the attack occurred. Behrens had some tense moments until he found out they were safe.
"Everybody was nervous. There wasn't a soul among us who wasn't praying for our buddies from our platoon who were tour-guiding in the Pentagon," Behrens said. "We weren't sure about their status. We were constantly thinking about them. Luckily, they made it out fine."
Like many other Old Guard soldiers, Sgt. Maj. Aubrey Butts knew someone who was in the Pentagon when the tragic incident occurred. That someone was his wife, Lucy, an Army civilian employee who works as a management assistant in the Army Operations Center. She made it out safely.
"I had to just have faith in God until I found out she was safe," Butts said. "In the meantime, I had a lot of soldiers I had to take care of, and I just prayed and hoped that she was all right. Now I'm angry. Someone tried to kill a member of my family."
Pfc. Travis Borrego, 21, of the Old Guard's Honor Guard company, also said he was angry. His anger was mixed with shock that something like this could happen so close to home.
"You see stuff like this on TV, and you never think that it will happen in America. This is too close to where we live and work," Borrego said. "This is terrible. All these American people dying needlessly."
Though the task that confronts the Old Guard soldiers is a terrible one, Borrego said he is part of the recovery effort.
"I'm glad that we can do anything to help. It's our people in there," he said. "Anything we can do to help, I'm more than glad to do it."
(Staff Sgt. Michele Hammonds is assigned to the 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Fort Belvoir, Va. Sgt. Nate Orme and Staff Sgt. John Valceanu, also of the 214th MPAD, contributed to this article.)