By Story by Maj. Jean Kratzer
Task Force Spartan
19 years have passed since the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, and four Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard reminisce about their experiences from ground zero.
The four 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.
Col. Patrick Clare, currently deployed as the officer in charge of logistics, Col. Jude Mulvey, the staff judge advocate, Col. Theresa Meltz, a physician assistant and clinical operations officer in charge and Master Sgt. Edgar Ponce is a parts manager that supports the maintenance of equipment for the division.
Many members of the New York National Guard did not wait for formal orders to mobilize on 9/11 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 Ponce. “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, he asserted.
Closest 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 a little 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),
With the collapse of the towers pulverized and scattered into the air, the smell was a memory that all four remember the most from being at ground zero.
“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,” Mulvey said.
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 reflected.
Clare, who was a platoon leader at the time, also revealed “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 at 9/11 had an important mission to secure much of lower Manhattan while others cleared Ground Zero, but 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 pulling security around the city.
Ponce stated, “that the level of destruction at the towers hit me hard, 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,” explained Ponce, “he asked if we could let him thru to help, he was trying not to breakdown, 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,” reflected Ponce.
Nineteen years later, Ponce still wonders what became of the man, was it his only son, or maybe his only family member, he emphasized.
The Soldiers served on the front line of “Ground Zero’ for weeks bringing their unique skills and capabilities to support the disaster recovery efforts.
Mulvey, who primarily served as a judge advocate providing legal assistance but also for several days, was close to the ruble where she handed out food and water.
“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, she reminisced.
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.
Mulvey reflected on her time at the armory. “I remember seeing all the "have you seen" posters. 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.
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 reflected.
I also remember the quiet and empty streets, added Mulvey. “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 resurgence of national pride hit the city streets instantly that had a noticeable impact on the Soldiers.
“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 reflected.
As everyone worked together, there was a feeling of unity in the whole country, stated Clare.
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, recalling their presence at the first incident in the Global War on Terror.
The collective experiences from each Soldier after serving in 9/11 and then deploying to Iraq surged patriotism and became personal.
“Deploying to Iraq, I took it personal. 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,” Ponce stated.
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.
With each one of these leaders having over two decades of service in the military, they can recount why being at “ Ground Zero” and deploying to the Middle East twice has made it both personal and the reason why they serve.
“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.
It has been 19 years since terrorists commandeered airplanes, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center were brought down.
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,” added Mulvey.
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.
U.S. ARMY RESERVE
DEPT. OF DEFENSE
U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY
BEST WARRIOR COMPETITION