SPRINGFIELD, IL (09/07/2011)(readMedia)
Editors Note; What follows is Sgt. Charlie Helmholt's First Person Account of His Experience Responding to the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Helmholt is an Illinois National Guard Soldier from Belleville Assigned to the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Every generation in this country has one of those days. The day you'll always remember where you were, or what you were doing. Some of them are our nation's greatest achievements like man's first walk on the moon, and some are catastrophes like the attack on Pearl Harbor, or JFK's assassination. These days are destined for more than just pages or paragraphs in history books, they change the very fabric of what it means to be a citizen of this country.
September 11, 2001. When someone says the date we all feel it. Maybe for some that feeling is still anger, or perhaps pain or sorrow. But undoubtedly we all share the commonality of the sight of planes crashing into buildings, or seeing a charred spot in a Pennsylvanian field.
While I remember those things, for me, it really isn't any images I saw on television that I think of when someone mentions the date. When I think about that day I think mostly of the smoke, the flag and the shoe.
I was serving in the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division The Old Guard, the Army's Honor Guard, a high standard ceremonial unit used as the presidents official military escort as well as various tasks in and around Arlington National Cemetery. The Honor Guard is split between Ft. McNair, in Washington D.C., and Ft. Myer, Va., both within eyesight of the Pentagon.
I belonged to A Company, which is housed at Ft. McNair, a beautiful little peninsular base of D.C. It is surrounded by the Potomac River and is preceded by the iconic tidal basin seen laden with cherry trees and blossoms in so many photos during the spring.
That morning we took a bus across the I-395 bridge over the Potomac, to Ft. Myer in Virginia, just a few miles away.
We were in a giant building nicknamed C-hall when the crash happened, and we were close enough to hear the impact. Everyone ran outside at once, around the building, and everyone froze. The Pentagon, our countries symbolic building of military strength was alive spewing gigantic plumes of black smoke into the air.
The Pentagon is such an imposing building; it employs more than 23,000 people. It was a surreal sight. I remember the confusion, fear and anger as we loaded the bus to get back across the water.
We were stopped on the bridge going back into D.C., so we got off and ran roughly a mile-and-a-half down the tidal basin along the water that led back to Ft. McNair. We all sprinted. Each one of us silent. All the while the Pentagon bled out dark smoke just over our shoulders at only a glance away, there across the river.
After securing our fort in D.C. we were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Pentagon. We had been told that since most members of our unit had security clearances we would be needed to augment the search and rescue mission inside the building.
We were briefed by firefighters on what we could expect to see; instructions were given by military brass on what we could never discuss, and we were sworn to secrecy on any sensitive material the floors or broken cabinets inside might share with us.
We were put in suits, full white garbage bag-like suits and given a civilian 3m-type gas mask. We walked under the slab of roof that hung down in front of the hole for the first time, and when we did, I could have never been prepared for what I saw.
When I describe it, I always tell people to imagine a bomb going off in a junkyard, but that's not near enough disaster. It was sheer chaos. I think before we arrived everyone hoped to be the one to find someone alive and bring them out, but when you walked in that first time all those hopes were shattered, no one could have been alive inside.
Huge support columns had to be reinforced, and in some cases built anew to keep the weight of the damaged building from collapsing. Then the arduous task of sifting through debris, separating biological remains from a jungle of twisted metal began. Many more red biohazard bags for body parts were filled than body bags with intact bodies.
There were moments during this time some of us would come together to weep during the days and weeks that followed. One memory in particular sticks with me. Just the thought of a friend fighting back tears, holding up the shoe of a young boy ,almost certainly a passenger on the plane that tore through the building just a day or two before.
If I remember correctly we worked six-hour shifts around the clock for the first two weeks or so. We even slept there, on site in tents. Most of the work was hard labor moving bomb proof filing cabinets that were twisted and torn to pieces or making sense of countless office décor strewn together, mixed in with all the rest.
Then a different kind of memory jumps in my mind; I remember getting to leave for something after a few weeks, and there were people on some of the overpasses holding huge American flags over the interstates during weird times of the day. Early, like Army early when people should be sleeping or getting ready for their day.
People were coming together in a way which I'd never seen in my lifetime or have since. People volunteered to help, counselors gave us free sessions, masseuses gave massages and phone companies set up lines to call whomever for free.
In fact, what I feel most about that day is pride. Of course I'm not proud of what happened, but when I saw the huge flags over the interstate and the even bigger one on the Pentagon itself, it filled me with pride to see us come together to help one another.
I was proud to be a Soldier, in a team of Soldiers, firefighters, police or volunteers who went into wounded buildings with the sole intent to help someone they had never met only because those people live under a common flag. Some would never make it back out.
For all of our country's faults, it is still the greatest country in the world, not just because we say it is, but because we can face such hardship and prevail all the stronger. And that's what I mean when I say I remember the flag, not the colors or fabric, but the symbolism behind it. It is the representation of everyone who died that fate-filled day in September and all the days before. It's pride in men who, guessing their fate, charged the plane's cockpit, choosing to sacrifice themselves rather than be used. Its pride in the ones left behind who are strong enough to hold up our flag so that this land and the entire world will know that we will never forget and we will always prevail.
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