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Old Guard Honors Tradition In Pentagon 'Battlefield'

Marilyn Wills
Joyce Rumsfeld comforts Army Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills during a visit to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the Pentagon. Rumsfeld, wife of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, visited Arlington (Va.) Hospital Sept. 13 to thank hospital staff and meet victims receiving treatment.
Photo by Jim Garamone.

Troops going into combat count on one thing: No matter what happens, their buddies won't leave them behind.

Service members at the Pentagon honored this battlefield tradition in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack on the historic military headquarters.

Gen. John Keane, Army vice chief of staff, was in his office at the Pentagon that day. In mid-January, he talked of the day's terror and courage to a group of reserve officers here.

When hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, Keane said, it sent a fireball 400 meters to the left and 300 meters to the right of the point of impact. Newly installed shatterproof glass windows bulged inward and turned orange.

"It was like a battlefield in every sense of the word," the general said. "There was a terrifying blast and a horrifying fireball.

"Ceilings and walls imploded," he said. "(The) room filled with the fireball and then with this black, acrid smoke that forced you to crawl on your hands and knees -- if you could -- to get out of that building. People formed human chains to do it."

Strange Battlefield

Just like on the battlefield, Keane said, there was terror, desperation, death -- and extraordinary acts of heroism. Army Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills, who later received the Soldier's Medal for heroism and the Purple Heart for her injuries that day, he said, was one example.

"She and a co-worker were knocked to the ground," Keane said. "The fireball came over them, then the smoke. She knew she had to get out. She grabbed her co-worker and put her on her back.

"We estimate she moved (the length of) a football field and a half or two, on her knees before she got to a window," he noted. "She took a computer and busted through the window and pitched her co-worker out the second floor. The woman broke both her legs.

"Marilyn had passed another woman en route, whom she knew would perish if she didn't go back and get her," he said. "She went back and put that woman on her back, dragged her down the hallway and pitched her out the window. She broke a leg. Then Marilyn jumped out the window herself.

"Marilyn's not that tall," remarked the square-jawed general, who's as broad-shouldered as an NFL player. "If I asked her today to lift her co-worker and put her on her back, she probably couldn't do it. But that day, knowing that she had to save a life, and save her own, she found the strength."

When the smoke cleared, 300 people were injured and 189 were dead, including 64 airline passengers and crew. The Army lost 75 people in the attack, Keane noted.

"Before the first responders came, we had people there who had first aid and combat life-saving skills," Keane said. "Hospital officials later told us what a remarkable job our people did in saving so many lives."

Because it was a crime scene, the Federal Bureau of Investigation took charge of the site. The local fire marshal directed search and rescue operations. Search and rescue operations soon transitioned into recovery operations.

Unprecedented Mission

The intense heat of the fireball had obliterated the remains of some victims. The remains of others lay in the smoldering ruins.

"We had a formidable task ahead of us to find the remains and remove them," Keane said. "We went to see the fire marshal and the special agent in charge and told them that as far as we were concerned, this was a battlefield and those were our dead. We have a way of dealing with this. On the battlefield, we take care of own and that's what we intend to do here."

Military officials called on one of the Army's most prestigious infantry units, the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Known as "the Old Guard," the unit is the oldest active infantry regiment in the Army.

Old Guard soldiers traditionally take part in Army ceremonies in the national capital region and around the world. They also perform funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. On September 11, the Old Guard was called out for an unprecedented mission.

At first, they performed search and rescue operations to find survivors. The soldiers helped shore up parts of the building and helped local fire and rescue authorities. Later, the task at hand was to locate and recover remains.

The soldiers helped sort through the rubble so FBI agents could locate evidence and local search and rescue workers could locate remains. When remains were found, the Old Guard soldiers carried out body bags containing the remains.

Military mortuary affairs personnel stood by to receive the remains. The Army's 54th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs), based at Fort Lee, Virginia, were first on the scene, followed by the Army Reserve 311th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs) from Puerto Rico.

"We intended to remove (all the remains) using United States Army soldiers," Keane said. "That's our tradition. That's our custom. So we asked the fire and rescue people to call us when they located (remains) and told them that we would assist them."

The Old Guard's young soldiers, he said, most in their early 20s, wore protective garments, respirators, rubber boots and gloves when they went in to recover remains.

All work on the site stopped while they performed the grim mission. Nothing would move except the soldiers, Keane said. They carried the remains to a tent, where there was a short ceremony with the American flag and a chaplain said a prayer.

"We did that outside the view of any camera or reporter," he noted. "We did that because that's who we are and what we stand for. Those are our values."

Source: American Forces Information Service via Veterans News and Information Service

 
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