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Three Veterans Recall 9/11

In this special remembrance edition of FireWatch Magazine, we ask three prior service members to describe how the events of 9/11 impacted their lives and careers.

Tyler Persons, Specialist, U.S. Army

I entered the military for the second time on May 2, 2001. My first go-around started in Oct. 1991. I was 17 years old. That is how I became the old guy in the S Shop. I had just missed deployment to Desert Storm. During those years, I was an 88M truck driver for civilians. My unit was deployed; they were a tanker unit. They hauled jet fuel and water. At that time, I recognized America’s common enemy as the Global Elite, and I still feel that way.

I hadn’t been back in the Army for long when I was sent to Fort Hood. I arrived there on Aug. 20, 2001. I was a member of the 8 BALL, the Best Combat Engineer Battalion in the 1st Cavalry Division. I was a 12B, Combat Engineer and a member of the E4 Mafia as a Specialist.

Prior to 9/11, our unit was in the field doing war game scenarios that always involved North Korea. On the morning of 9/11, we did PT as we did every morning. When I returned to the S3 Shop, we all saw what was happening on TV. Suddenly the phones started ringing, and the radios were filled with chatter. Everyone went into a mad scramble to get everybody in from the field. We set up extra radios and comms and went into lockdown. They didn’t issue weapons, though. We were there all night; we finally were able to go home sometime the next day.

I can only describe the weeks following the attacks in the words of Gunny Highway (Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge): “it was a complete cluster fuck.” It took five hours to get through security at the gate of Fort Hood on the 12th. The next day, it took about three and a half hours and two hours each day after that until the reserve units showed up. You had to be at the gate by 0500 to be on time, and we never left until way after dark. The rest of that week, we worked no less than 16 hours per day. They came up with extra guard duties to protect stupid areas and yet gave us no weapons to do anything with. It was a joke. It was probably a month before we did PT again. Being First CAV, everyone was sure we would deploy any minute to the desert. In October, we had a big briefing about the upcoming deployment. Next thing you know, we were sent to NTC for training and were still training about the invasion of North Korea! WTF? By Christmas, though, everything had settled down.

I don’t know where my career would have taken me without 9/11. I know the attacks screwed me pretty good. Because of Stop Loss, I wasn’t allowed out when my contract was up. I was in Iraq for a full year deployment, and while there, I basically broke my back. The ARMY said I wasn’t disabled but unfit for duty medically (you’re guess is as good as mine). I also had some bad reactions to the Anthrax vaccines and have suffered from daily headaches since 2008

Marvin Hedstrom, LTC, US ARMY (ret.)

I entered the U.S. Army on Oct. 15, 1988, at Ft. Belvoir, Va., reporting for duty at the Engineer Officer Basic Course (EOBC). In those days, the U.S. Army conducted Engineer Officer Training at Ft. Belvoir and its enlisted training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. The schools combined at Ft. Leonard Wood in 1992, and I attended the Engineer Officer Advanced Course there in the fall of 1993 in the second training class to be conducted there. During Desert Sheild / Desert Storm in 1990-1991, I was assigned to the 20th Engineer Battalion at Ft. Campbell, Ky., serving as the company executive officer in the 41st Engineer Company (Medium Girder Bridge). Ironically, the 41st Engineer Company was the first unit on Ft. Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and ultimately, the only unit assigned at Ft. Campbell not to end up deploying. The entire 101st, 5th Special Forces Group, and the Corps Support Group all deployed between Oct. 1990 and Jan. 1991, prior to commencement of ground operations in Kuwait.

Our company provided security for Ft. Campbell, trained activated guard/reserve units, and conducted a host of administrative services to the broader Ft. Campbell community. During that time, I served as OIC for range operations for 100-plus consecutive days rotating guard/reserve soldiers thru their qualification and training requirements, while later serving as a Casualty Assistance Officer multiple times. Fortunately, ground operations were less than 100 hours, and the Division suffered only a few casualties.

When I first enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college, the Soviet Union and potential war in Europe remained the military’s primary focus. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and later collapse and disaggregation of the Soviet Union, the military doctrine writers struggled for years to define a clear threat to the United States. Fortunately, I spent 1994 thru 1996 in South Korea serving with the 2nd Infantry Division, and we clearly knew that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was an existential threat to 2ID should they decide to move south across the border by force.

I found myself at Fort Hood, Texas, with the 1st Cavalry Division, working as the Chief G3 Plans, having graduated from the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) in June 2001. I reported for duty at Ft. Hood on July 5th 2001, just a few months prior to 9/11. Although I was an Engineer Officer, 21B, I was serving a utilization tour in the 1D, G3 Plans Shop, as Chief, G3 Plans, effectively in a O1A, Branch Immaterial billet. At the time, I was a Major.

During the summer of 2001, G3 Plans Shop had two main focus areas. The first was updating the Division’s support plan to reinforce South Korea in the event of conflict on the Korean peninsula. The second was integrating and training the Division’s Plans Team to conduct rapid crisis action planning in support of III Corps and 3rd Army (ARCENT) preparations for rapid deployment in response to crisis in the Middle East.

I remember everything about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 as if it were yesterday.

Physical training with the G3 at 0600, rushed home to shower and was back in the office just after 0800 to prep for a training class and table top exercise we were leading with the staff focused on Division level river crossing scenarios. As an Engineer Officer, I was very comfortable with the scenarios and the planning requirements. I was excited to show my stuff. Unfortunately, we never conducted the exercise. 

Everything began to change at 0845 when word began to spread within the Headquarters about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. It started with the Division staff duty NCO alerting us as they had the news on in the Division’s operation center. We had a little 19-inch color TV in the plans shop that we never used—except for that day. It was on all day. And there was a constant stream of folks checking in for updates.

I realized immediately that we were under attack when the second plane hit. We all had a sense that it wasn’t an accident. This was a terror attack and probably originated from the Middle East.

The rest of that day was long and surreal. The Division leadership wanted to do something, but we had yet to receive any guidance from III Corps or ARCENT. Not that anyone expected them to move that fast. The situation was unclear. No one knew. There were lots of briefings on Division readiness and status for imminent deployment, just in case. That first night, I think I got home around 0200, slept for a couple of hours, and was back in the office by 0500 on Sept. 12.

Post- 9/11, everything from Sept. 2001 thru April 2002 is a blur. During that period, we worked every day with only an occasional Sunday off. That felt weird. Like you should be at work doing more, preparing just a little more. I spent the early days after 9/11 at ARCENT, which was located in Atlanta at that time, trying to gain insight into their planning and keeping Division up to date on possible deployment scenarios.

In Oct. 2001, we prepared and deployed a BCT to Kuwait as a deterrent to Iraq not to invade Kuwait again. We were also working on a variety of contingency plans that got elements of the Division involved in the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s very difficult for a heavy division to both get to and sustain combat operations in that part of the world. After a while, we shifted to planning for the invasion of Iraq—only to be left out of that as well. Ultimately, the Division deployed to Iraq for OIF-2 in March 2004.

I don’t believe the trajectory of my career changed because of 9/11. I moved on to be the S3 and XO of the 8th Engineer Battalion which was a dream job for me. Eventually, I was selected for Battalion Command, and deployed to Iraq a second time in Oct. 2006, and then made the decision to retire in 2009.

More significantly, what changed was we were no longer peacetime soldiers. We were at war and remained at war for over 20-plus years. And I would submit it’s not over yet.

Scott Gould, CSM U.S. ARMY (ret.)

I joined the Army in Oct. 1984. I didn’t deploy in Desert Storm. Instead, I was at the Joint Readiness Training Center training the National Guard to deploy. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was assigned to the Military District of Washington Engineer Company at Fort Belvoir, Va., later flagged as the 911th Engineer Company. I had been at this assignment for two and half years before the 9/11 attacks. At that time, I was the company First Sergeant (1SG/E8) working as a Combat Engineer. We were the Army’s only Technical Rescue company focused on confined space and collapsed structure rescue operations. 

On the morning of 9/11, we had just finished our physical training and were preparing for the day’s scheduled rescue training. I was in my office with the news on when reports started coming in about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center. At first, I thought it was just an accident, but when I saw the second plane hit the second tower, I knew we were under attack.

Then I saw news that the Pentagon had been struck. 

Immediately after the Pentagon was hit, the Military District of Washington Operations Center called my office to initiate our alert and response sequence. We quickly sent our Initial Response Team by helicopter to the Pentagon, and the remainder of the company convoyed with our equipment to the Pentagon Site. 

When we arrived, the scene outside the building was complete chaos. Inside the building was horrific

Once on-site at the Pentagon I worked for 24-hours continuously. I didn’t sleep again until the night of the 12th. Eventually, we were set to 12-hour shifts. 

We shifted to victim recovery for 10-days, and then returned to Fort Belvoir and immediately assumed armed security of the entrances. Heightened security meant placing barriers around all of the gates. 

On 9/11, I had served 17-years in a peace-time Army, now we were on a war footing and sending troops into harms way across the globe. I was promoted to Command Sergeant Major and deployed to fight the insurgency in Iraq, and to help rebuild the country. After returning from Iraq I retired from service. After retirement, I went to work at Booz Allen Hamilton managing several training programs to prepare soldiers for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

While the experience on 9/11, and in Iraq changed my outlook on humanity and left me with PTSD, I managed 2 successful careers. I now spend my time as a volunteer working with disabled veterans so they recieve the benefits they’ve earned from the Veterans Administration. 

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