Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First Sergeant Jose Santiago, 311th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs)

From: The Role of the Army Reserve in the 11 September Attacks: The Pentagon

INTERVIEWER: What were you doing on 11 September when you first heard of the attack?
What was your reaction?
SANTIAGO: I was in my shop since I am an auto body worker on classic cars. The people at the shop came over and told me, “Hey, a plane just crashed into a Twin Tower in New York.” I said, “Well it was probably an accident.” Then they came back and told me, “No, there is another plane that crashed in the Pentagon, and it’s a terrorist.” So, I said let me lock up and go home. . . . I just went straight home and just kept watching the news for the rest of that week. I had drill on Friday, and about 9:30 [a.m.] they told me, “First Sergeant, we are moving.”
INTERVIEWER: 9:30 [a.m.] on 11 September?
SANTIAGO: No, on 14 September. So, as soon as my platoon sergeants came in, I told them, “Guys, we are moving.” We had a formation. After that we told the guys what was going on, that we were going on ADT [active duty for training] for sixteen days [until the beginning of the 2003 fiscal year]. I told them, “ . . . When the new fiscal year kicks in, we will be here for the long run.” So, we requested volunteers since all we needed was eighty-five soldiers. The first eighty-five soldiers were all volunteers . . . .
INTERVIEWER: Were there any difficulties in transitioning from the civilian to the Army life for yourself and for your personnel?
SANTIAGO: Not for myself. I consider myself a professional soldier. I’ve been in twenty-six years; seven years of those I was an active Army infantryman. . . . For some of my troops, it was kind of difficult because this is the first time they were called out. They are young kids . . . out of college, some of them recently graduated. Two females just recently got off an aircraft from AIT [advanced individual training] and a week later they are back in an aircraft coming back over here . . . .
INTERVIEWER: When you told the troops the orders were for sixteen days, what had you
been told about the mission in Washington?
SANTIAGO: Nothing, I just went by the orders. The experience that I have told me that it was not going to [be] sixteen days. . . . [We worked with the 54th Quartermaster Company, whose] main mission was to work with the FBI. At the time, the FBI thought that our mission and training was only on the collection of the [human] remains, . . . but then they find out that was not the case.

My people are trained. You can say they are like archeologists. They know what they are looking for, and they look for that thing that does not look normal. . . . They went through the rubble. It was non-stop twelve hours. They only had a break to eat something, and then they would go back into the rubble. They did what we call a grid search. They go down on a grid. They set some patterns and they recover portions of remains, important documents, to include documents of the terrorists. The FBI told us that the estimated time would be one month. My unit did it in two weeks. I believe it was . . . if I am not mistaken . . . either 50,000 or 75,000 tons of rubble. My unit went in two weeks and accomplished the mission. From there, we were moved to the Pentagon. The estimated time there was two months. The unit did it in one week.

[He discussed community support.] Everybody wanted to see who the 311th was. Who were these young boys and girls that gave up their civilian life and volunteered to come over here to do a job that nobody wants to do but someone has to do it? And while doing it, we know that we are at least putting pieces of life together. Whatever . . . pieces the soldiers found in the rubble . . . anything, a pen, a ring, at least would give someone something to remember their loved one by. And I always told them, “Gentlemen, this is very important. Not only myself, your families back home, but also the people in Washington will appreciate this for years to come. This is history.” I always remind them of that. Every morning I tell them, “Gentlemen, you can walk with your head high and feel proud because you are doing a mission that you were trained for. And you have done it not only with the best of your abilities, but you’ve done it above and beyond what was expected of you.”

Every time we would drive by the Pentagon, when we changed teams, the civilians on the hilltop by a gas station, they would applaud. I would say, “Hey, guys, that is for you.” A lot of people still want to see us. They want to see these young kids to thank us. Even when the commander, when he was somewhere in Washington, he walked into a place and some guy asked him, “Are you from here?” He said, “No, I am from Puerto Rico. My unit is the 311th from Puerto Rico.” That guy said, “Hey, guys, this is the commander of the 311th.” Everyone just stood up and started applauding. . . . So, everywhere we go, like the cadence says, “people want to know” who we are. So we tell them, “We are the 311th.”
INTERVIEWER: That type of support is invaluable, but what else is done to keep morale up? This is a stressful job.
SANTIAGO: Well, in our battalion, which we consider our battalion for life, they give us calling cards for the troops. I start with the privates, since they are the ones that make the less money. They gave every platoon sergeant cell phones. I passed those on to the platoon sergeants and told them these are for us to keep in touch ten percent of the day, and the other ninety percent is for the troops so they can call [their families] . . . .

When they found out that we were sent out here with only our military clothing, . . . they called [the Salvation Army] . . . and they gave us thick clothing, sweaters, jeans, long johns so the troops could keep warm. . . . AAFES [Army and Air Force Exchange Service], they were great. What can I say? When they found out, they sent us brown t-shirts, socks, and somehow they all joined forces, the Red Cross, AAFES and the Salvation Army. They did their own battle in supplying us. I would tell them we were the front line soldiers and they were our support. They were giving us water, food at the north parking lot, everything we needed. That helped a lot for the first weeks that we were here, all that support that was coming in.

We are still getting support from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Just yesterday, the Red Cross found out last week that even though we had what the Salvation Army had given us…we did not have any jackets for cold weather or gloves. . . . We only had what the military had given us. And since being in the Army you are not allowed to mix civilian and military, the Red Cross said, “Give us a list of what they need, and we will pay for it.” They gave each soldier $150 [to buy cold weather clothing]. . . . I had senior NCOs [noncommissioned officers] that were busted on the second week because they had given money that they brought to their privates. All that joining together kept the unit morale above 100 percent. . . . Even though [the soldiers] were exhausted, they were putting in 100 percent. That is what makes this unit special.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that you would like to add?
SANTIAGO: Yes, . . . that being a Reserve unit, most people think that these guys are weekend warriors. My unit showed the regular Army that being just a Reserve unit or weekend warriors that we know our job, and we do it to standard and sometimes above standard. Even though we are weekend warriors, we are professionals . . . what you call a citizen and a soldier.

William G. Miller, tape recording with transcript, Fort Myer, Virginia, 24 October 2001

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