Story and photo by Spc. Sharla Lewis, 3rd AAB PAO, 1st Cav. Div.
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq – In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City Sept. 11, 2001, Americans across the nation rose together, unified by the response to the events that day.
For some Soldiers with the 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division serving at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, the memory of that day was close at hand as they passed under crossed sabers into the Corps of the Noncommissioned Officer at a ceremony on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Three such newly minted NCOs enlisted into the military because of an urge to stand up and defend the country they loved against the forces that attacked her so dismissively and memorialize those who lost their lives during the attacks in New York with their dedication to the service.
Sgt. Ralph Vancil, with C Company, 215th Bde. Spt. Bn. was a private first class in the Army on 9/11 and the statistics of death at Ground Zero and a decade of war haunt him.
“I turned on the news and never thought it would be something of that magnitude,” he said.
Vancil recalled that his family expressed concern for his safety at the realization that he would be going into combat. His uncle, a former military service member, showed cynicism towards Vancil’s calm demeanor.
Since then, Vancil has dedicated his life to the military. After working as a radio operator and maintainer for years, he opted to go to school to be a biomedical equipment specialist and said he wanted to give the Army all he had and knew he needed a different job to do that.
Vancil has kept the feelings surrounding 9/11 at the forefront of his mind and wrote a blog to remind his friends and family of the sacrifices of the 2,752 who were killed in the wake of the tragedy.
“This time of year always gets me choked up and when I found out the induction ceremony was today, it really got me thinking,” he said.
To Vancil, the ceremony represents acceptance into a brotherhood of honor, commitment, integrity and responsibility to his Soldiers and chain of command.
“I want to serve for another eight years and this is kind of like a rite of passage,” he said. “We’re getting a handshake from our leadership that says, ‘Welcome to the Corps,’ and we’re fighting for the same things today that we were fighting 10 years ago.”
Unlike Vancil, Sgt. Mitchell Pecoraro, a mechanic with B Company and native of San Diego, wasn’t able to enlist until he was eligible at age 17 in 2006. The product of a military family, he said his mom knew from the time he was playing with his “Army men” that he would join the military someday.
“Her brother deployed directly after the attacks, so she has always supported me in the Army. My dad didn’t start out as a supporter, but once he realized that I was doing what I knew I wanted to do, he jumped on the bandwagon too,” Pecoraro said.
Pecoraro’s uncle was an officer in the Army when the attacks happened.
“He was really influential to my decision to enlist,” said Pecoraro. “Seeing my country under attack and realizing that there were people outside the U.S. that wanted to hurt us really urged me to stand up and protect my country.”
Now a re-enlistment NCO for his company, he said he encourages young Soldiers that are undecided about their military career to take pride in their jobs. Pecoraro’s next duty station will be at a recruiting command in the U.S., and he says he can’t wait to start.
“I want to put the best people in the Army. I want to help anyone that has the same sense of pride that I have,” he said.
The decade of repercussions of the attacks reverberated close to home for many in the country.
Sgt. Stephanie Simms was in New York City after dropping a friend off at work when she heard on the radio, “The towers are hit! The towers are hit!”
Leaving her car on the freeway where traffic was at a halt, Simms walked back to her friend’s workplace. All around her was chaos, she said. She watched as people covered in dust fled Ground Zero and others raced towards the wreckage, trying to break through blockades to find their loved ones.
“I remember one woman screaming down the street that her husband was downtown,” she said.
Simms lost three friends in the attacks and said the need for answers enveloped her.
“How could we let this happen? I called my cousin at the Pentagon for answers, but he couldn’t tell me anything,” she said. “I wanted to know who was responsible.”
Sims said that feelings of anger and disappointment surged through her and in the following weeks, she said found herself looking at to enlisting, to make an impact on the outcome of the war and to continue the tradition of the patriarchs of her family. Her father encouraged her to wait until she had established herself more and the emotions blanketing New York had died down.
Though she waited for several years, Simms said she knew she would enlist ever since watching the towers fall.
Now a newly promoted sergeant, Simms said she is honored to be a part of the NCO Corps and wishes her father could have been here to see her walk under the sabers.
“I wish my dad was here. When I was up there, I was thinking of my father and how I’m continuing the tradition of our family,” Simms said. “The torch has been passed.”
Waiting to shake the hands of the leaders of her battalion, the memory of her friends’ deaths was at the forefront of her mind and her sense of responsibility and loyalty swelled.
“You already have a sense of pride when you first put on your uniform” Simms said, “but it’s different when you’ve taught a Soldier to do the right thing and they follow your example.”
“I’m honoring my friends and I’m so proud.”
Ten years after 9/11, the induction ceremony marked the rite of passage for more than 20 NCOs and the beginning of their responsibilities to their Soldiers and the thousands killed because of the attacks. As each troop heard his or her name and crossed over the threshold into the Corps, looks of accomplishment and determination stretched across their faces.