Iraq War Veterans Say Sept. 11 Inspired Them to Fight


Iraq War Veterans Say Sept. 11 Inspired Them to Fight
by Richard Liebson

As a recruiter for the Army Reserve, Sgt. 1st Class Ron Agard of Monsey had a standard answer for those who asked why anyone should join the military.

“One of these days,” he’d say, “you’re going to need us.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Agard pulled over to the side of a New Jersey highway and watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down and knew that day had come.

Howard Wulforst knew it, too.

“There was evil at work that day,” the 43-year-old Patterson resident and Army National Guard staff sergeant said, recalling that while co-workers at his job watched reports of the attack on television, he was too angry to join them.

“I called all my soldiers and told them to get ready,” he said…


By 8 p.m., Wulforst’s unit was assembled at a Battery Park command post. Sobered by the realization that an uncle who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald had been killed, Wulforst spent three weeks in Lower Manhattan, providing security at Ground Zero and escorting residents to and from their homes. Two years later, he began a 12-month tour in Iraq.

Five years after the events of Sept. 11 thrust the nation into a war on terror that has sent tens of thousands of U.S. troops into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans from the Lower Hudson Valley say they’re proud of their service and confident that in the long run, freedom will prevail. They urged patience in the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden and for U.S. efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of all, they said, they were grateful for the support they received from back home during tours overseas.

“Sept. 11 is still fresh in my mind,” said Larchmont Fire Lt. Richard Heine, 41, a medical corpsman in the U.S. Navy Reserve who returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq in July and is prepared to go again if needed. “I know it’s moved to the back burner for a lot of people, but to me it’s still fresh. The friends we’ve lost, I think of them all the time.”

While some question whether the United States should have invaded Iraq and say that there is nothing to link it to the trade center attack, Heine doesn’t dwell on the arguments against the war.

“Our being there certainly has its basis in 9/11,” he said. “If 9/11 hadn’t have happened, I definitely think we wouldn’t be in Iraq today. And it’s not as bad as the news says it is. I believe that progress is being made and that the men and women serving there are doing a fantastic job. … In the long run, I think there will be some form of democracy and self-government in Iraq and that the people there will be better off because of it.”

Christian Gimenez of Port Chester was a 20-year-old student who said he had no direction in life until the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“It was a life-changing event for me,” he said. “I got really, really, angry and felt like I needed to do something. I was a young, naive kid, but I knew that this was something important. I knew there was going to be a fight, and I wanted to be there. I felt that finally, I’d have a chance to do something meaningful.” He joined the Marine Corps in January 2002.

“By the time I finished with training, we were already in Afghanistan and gearing up for Iraq,” he said. “I was all about it I didn’t care where they sent me, as long as I got a chance to fight something.”

A fire direction controlman with a Marine artillery unit, Gimenez saw plenty of action early in the war as his battalion pushed from Kuwait all the way through Iraq. He didn’t want to talk about combat, saying only that some of his friends “got shot up pretty bad.”

He did share a sense of euphoria with his comrades when they took over one of Saddam Hussein’s lavish homes, taking showers and watching the movie “Independence Day” in the palace theater.

“That was the best,” he said. “Most of the people were happy we were there, and it really felt like we were making a difference.”

Gimenez returned to the United States in summer 2003 and by May 2004 was back in Iraq.

“Things were different the second time,” he said. “It was a guerrilla war. The insurgents planted bombs and booby traps, and they didn’t wear uniforms, so you couldn’t tell who the enemy was anymore. They’re a hard, tough enemy. When we weren’t out on patrols, we rebuilt schools and hospitals and things like that. But you really only felt safe when you were on the base. My sense of purpose changed, and I started questioning why we were still there, even though no weapons of mass destruction had been found.”

Nonetheless, Gimenez said, “9/11 was always in the back of my mind, and in a lot of ways that kept me going. The toughest thing about being over there is mental. You have to keep a positive mind-set, otherwise you’ll go crazy.

“People say that the war on terror is about Osama bin Laden and that we still haven’t caught him, but Osama’s just a symbol,” he said. “He’s an important symbol, no doubt, but it’s not like everything will be finished when we catch him. And we will catch him. What’s important is that we be there for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan that we hold their hands until they don’t need us anymore.”

Wulforst recalls filling a Gatorade bottle with dust from Ground Zero because he wasn’t sure his uncle’s body would ever be found. “It seems silly I would even do something like that,” he said. “I was motivated to hurt the people who did this.”

In September 2004, his unit was deployed to Iraq. “Once I figured out this was real, I prayed every day I left that (base) gate,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was praying for, but I prayed.”

Wulforst wasn’t comfortable talking about a young soldier in his unit who was killed. “I can see his smile right now,” Wulforst said. “It was a beautiful day … and then he was gone.”

He returned home in 2005 and said he would go back “if I absolutely had to.” He said he’s hopeful there will be democracy in Iraq.

“I don’t know what flavor that democracy will come in,” he said. “But I think there’s definitely a chance it will happen.”

Agard, who watched the towers fall while picking up a recruit in Teaneck, N.J., was sent to Iraq in September 2004 with a unit that rebuilt schools and hospitals, made other infrastructure improvements and helped the country prepare for its first election. “Maybe I’ve watched too many John Wayne movies, but I’ve always felt that I needed to serve,” the 46-year-old said. “It’s all about the mission, the mission, the mission.” In Iraq, he said, the job was to show people they could have a better life. “It’s all little steps,” he said. “There’s no immediate gratification.”

Agard’s been home for a year now but tries to follow events in Iraq as much as possible. If called back, he said, “I’m ready to go. People need to know that we’re doing a good job over there and that we’re making a difference. Regardless of your politics, remember to keep supporting the men and women who are over there.”


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