UNDISCLOSED LOCATION – Nineteen years after the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, four New York Army National Guard Soldiers recalled their experiences responding in New York on 9/11.
The Soldiers not only share their tragic experience from 9/11 but also deployed together to Iraq in 2004 and then again to the Middle East in 2020 – both deployments under the 42nd Infantry Division.
On Sept. 11, 2001, many members of the New York National Guard did not wait for formal orders to mobilize but instead rushed to their armories.
"I was in Staten Island with the 101st Cavalry when we got the call to be in Manhattan that evening," said Master Sgt. Edgar Ponce, a parts manager that supports the maintenance of equipment for the division. "We rushed, got our gear and took the ferry over and started pulling security. I remember just seeing the body bags being pulled from the rubble."
New York National Guard units closest to the World Trade Center towers were three battalions from the 3rd Brigade, 42nd Infantry Division: the 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry from Staten Island; the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery from Queens; and the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, headquartered in Manhattan just over 2 miles north of what would quickly become known as "ground zero."
Also responding were B & C Companies of the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry and New York's 2nd Civil Support Team (Weapons of Mass Destruction).
On that horrible day, terrorists took over four commercial airlines and crashed two into the twin towers in New York City and one into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
The twin towers collapsed one after the other, reduced to smoldering rubble. All four Soldiers remember the smell.
"First, the smell at the towers and around lower Manhattan. It was a burning smell, but something more. I will never forget it. And it never dissipated. The smoke and ash that were part of the air," said Col. Jude Mulvey, now the staff judge advocate.
"I was almost afraid to breathe in the air because, by the time I arrived, I fully lost track of the days down there. We all knew that there were remnants of people in that air," she said.
Col. Patrick Clare, who was a platoon leader at the time, recalled "that the smell was something I had not experienced before and have not experienced since. And, I'm still not sure exactly how to describe it."
The Soldiers had an important mission to secure much of lower Manhattan while others cleared ground zero. Still, in the first days and nights after the attack, it was common for Guard men and women to work in "bucket brigades," removing debris by hand while searching for survivors and providing security around the city.
"The level of destruction at the towers hit me hard," said Ponce. "The most difficult memory for me was at the security checkpoint.
"An older gentleman came up to us and mentioned that he was a former service member and that his son worked at the towers," said Ponce. "He asked if we could let him through to help. He was trying not to break down, but we couldn't let him through.
"He walked a few feet from us, knelt down and started crying. To this day, I wished I could have said or done something to comfort him," Ponce said.
The Soldiers served on the front line of ground zero for weeks. Mulvey, who primarily served as a judge advocate providing legal assistance, also handed out food and water for several days.
"At one point, I was walking around with a group of men that were working on clearing the debris, and I found a high-heel shoe. Just a single shoe. I think I stared at that shoe for minutes before I could find my voice to call someone to retrieve and preserve it. It's still in my head."
The 69th Infantry's armory on Lexington Avenue was turned into an assistance center for thousands of family members seeking word of lost loved ones.
A total of 2,996 people died in the attacks, including the 19 terrorist hijackers.
"I remember seeing all the 'have you seen' posters," Mulvey said. "They lined the length of the wall of the 69th from floor to ceiling, and each was of a different lost individual. The enormity of it was staggering.
After work one day, I stood and read every single handbill plastered on the wall. More posters were up on buildings throughout the city, some with small shrines in front of them," she added.
Col. Theresa Meltz, a physician assistant, spent weeks treating Soldiers and running a sick call there.
"Initially, we worked out of the Lexington Armory but moved to Governor's Island. On arrival, I felt very anxious; no one knew if another attack was imminent," Meltz said.
"I remember the posters that were everywhere hung by those in search of missing loved ones. That was terribly sad. I also recall how empty public events such as baseball games and Broadway shows were eerily almost empty," she said.
Mulvey also remembers the quiet and empty streets. "New York City was always such a noisy, busy city. But once I stepped into lower Manhattan, it was so quiet. No cars. No people other than silent first responders. Not only was the landscape of the city different, but so was the crippling silence."
The Soldiers also recalled the resurgence of national pride following the attacks.
"The people of New York received us with benevolence; it was extraordinary. Humvees drove past, cheering residents. Residents would sometime stop us to say thank you and give us a hug, or to silently squeeze our hands," Mulvey said.
Clare recalled a feeling of unity in the whole country.
By November 2001, most support functions had been handed back to other agencies.
In 2004, the headquarters of the 42nd Infantry Division deployed to Iraq, the image of 9/11 remained strong, and "Rainbow Never Forget" became the division's unofficial motto.
"Deploying to Iraq, I took it personal," said Ponce. "I had a lot of expectations on what I wanted to accomplish. But once I got on ground and worked more with my peers, I realized that the most important part was to ensure we all made it back home safe.
As we traveled and got to interact more with the local people, I realized that not everyone has bad intentions, and there were people happy to see us here to help," he added.
"Deploying to Iraq did make it personal, I did feel the need to deploy because of what I saw during 9/11 and what it did to my country," Clare said.
The division is now deployed in support of the global war on terrorism in the Middle East once again.
More than 600 Soldiers from the division headquarters assumed control of Task Force Spartan Shield in March. With subordinate formations comprising nearly 10,000 Soldiers from all three components of the Army, the task force works to reinforce defense relationships, build partner capacity and, when necessary, execute contingency plans in the U.S. Army Central area of responsibility.
"I had no idea how my life would change after being in the military for 22 years, and how the Army would give me the opportunity to accomplish things I never thought possible," Mulvey said.
"The Army embodies so much of what I believe in. I have had the privilege to work with so many others who represent that, and we will always honor and remember those lost in 9/11 – never forget," she concluded.