First Responder: 9/11 Transformed National Guard

FORT MEADE, Md. — On Sept. 11, 2001, Army Spc. Qiyu “Steve” Luo was fresh off active duty and prepar­ing for his first week­end drill with the New York Army Nation­al Guard.

Hired as a full-time admin­is­tra­tive spe­cial­ist, Luo had some pre­con­ceived notions at the time about what he con­sid­ered to be a club of week­end war­riors. The focus of the upcom­ing week­end drill was to be civ­il dis­tur­bance train­ing.

What Luo and his fel­low 1st Bat­tal­ion, 69th Infantry Reg­i­ment sol­diers didn’t real­ize was that they were about to embark on what he called “the ulti­mate civ­il dis­tur­bance train­ing” as first respon­ders to the 9/11 attack just 40 blocks from their armory.

“I hadn’t seen my first drill yet, but then I guess I had the biggest drill of my life,” he said.

Reflect­ing back a decade lat­er, Luo said the expe­ri­ence for­ev­er changed him, his unit and the Nation­al Guard he con­tin­ues to serve today.

News of the 9/11 attack swept quick­ly across the unit, with mem­bers arriv­ing for duty that morn­ing even before they were called, Luo recalled. Even a cou­ple of the sol­diers who had been away with­out leave appeared, ready to do what­ev­er was need­ed.

“Just out of nowhere, every­one showed up,” Luo said. “This is where every­one knew they need­ed to be.”

By the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the guards­men were on the scene at ground zero, Luo said, set­ting up a secu­ri­ty perime­ter around the site and sup­port­ing the res­cue and recov­ery effort.

The unit mem­bers, many per­son­al­ly affect­ed by the attack, worked tire­less­ly as they helped fire and police depart­ment offi­cials search for vic­tims and doing what­ev­er tasks were required to sup­port the effort.

“Every day we were doing dif­fer­ent things,” Luo said. “The first day, I was help­ing dig out. The next day, I was guard­ing the mor­tu­ary or escort­ing peo­ple who lived in the area” so they could retrieve essen­tials from their homes.

After the first week, Luo began rotat­ing in and out of the area over the next six months. When not phys­i­cal­ly on the scene, his focus was on ensur­ing Guard mem­bers who had been called to active duty were get­ting paid.

Morale was high, Luo recalled, high­er than he’d ever antic­i­pat­ed. “Every­one was doing their job, what they had joined to do,” he said. “Peo­ple felt a call­ing.”

That call­ing, the Guard mem­bers real­ized, would extend long beyond the 9/11 response mis­sion. Ulti­mate­ly, almost all would deploy to com­bat, either to Afghanistan or, like Luo, to Iraq, from Novem­ber 2004 to August 2005.

Now a sergeant first class still serv­ing with the 42nd Infantry Divi­sion, Luo said 9/11 changed the Nation­al Guard in ways he nev­er imag­ined pos­si­ble.

“It trig­gered a dra­mat­ic change in the Guard,” he said. “It went from being a ‘frat boy orga­ni­za­tion’ to a pro­fes­sion­al fight­ing force. We went from being a strate­gic reserve to an oper­a­tional reserve.”

Since 9/11, the New York Army Nation­al Guard has sent almost 8,000 sol­diers to Iraq and Afghanistan, not­ed Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Mur­phy, New York’s adju­tant gen­er­al. Among those who have deployed are mem­bers of the 42nd Infantry Divi­sion head­quar­ters, the first Guard divi­sion head­quar­ters to deploy to com­bat since the Kore­an War.

Today, the New York Guard is prepar­ing to send more than 2,000 sol­diers over­seas in 2012 and 2013, Mur­phy said. These include the 27th Infantry Brigade Com­bat Team — the same unit that deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and will return there next year.

“The 8,000 sol­diers and air­men who’ve joined the New York Nation­al Guard since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 prob­a­bly wouldn’t rec­og­nize the Nation­al Guard that exist­ed on Sept. 10, 2001,” Mur­phy said in a mes­sage to his com­mand. “The Nation­al Guard today is a more demand­ing orga­ni­za­tion to belong to,” with greater expec­ta­tions on it from the state and nation.

Luo said his per­son­al role as a 9/11 first respon­der, and as a sol­dier in that oper­a­tional Nation­al Guard force has changed his view of the world.

“I went from being there at ground zero pick­ing up body parts to active­ly engag­ing in com­bat in the war on ter­ror,” he said. “For me, being there to wit­ness all that in per­son, up close and per­son­al, has def­i­nite­ly been a life-chang­ing expe­ri­ence.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)