3 May 2011

9/11 heroes who joined the Marines to hunt Bin Laden

Bin Laden’s death is a moment of special symbolism for the men of the 6th Communication Battalion Marines, writes Online Editor Ed Fraser. They lost three of their number to the 9/11 attack.

File picture shows firemen working around the World Trade Center after both towers collapsed in New York (Reuters)

For the 6th Communications Battalion Marines, the eve of the war in Iraq in 2003 was personal.

The battalion, a reserve force based around Brooklyn, New York, included an assortment of policemen and firefighters who were dubbed heroes after the 9/11 attack.

Those same men who had rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center towers that September 11 morning were now back in the combat desert uniform of US Marine Reserves – called back into military action to join the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

It was President George W Bush who galvanised post-9/11 support for a war on terror telling the world bin Laden was “Wanted – Dead or Alive”.

Of course, these men of Brooklyn had lost friends and seen the death and destruction of the 9/11 attacks at close quarters – few needed much prompting to support the war.

Iraq: A war on Bin Laden?

When I met them in 2003 at Camp Commando, Kuwait, ahead of the ground invasion of Iraq they told me they were out to: “Kick bin Laden’s butt.” At least that is what they thought.

Yet the extended war they would fight in Iraq proved to be far from a war on Osama bin Laden – although Iraq did act as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda fighters from around the world, giving President Bush some grounds for legitimacy for this phase of his so called “War on Terror”.


Fallen comrades

For the 6th Communications Battalion this was indeed personal. Three of their number were killed at Ground Zero – firefighters Matt Garvey and Charlie Anaya. and Sergeant Mike Curtin, a police officer.

It was in honour of these three 9/11 heroes that the men had gathered at a wind-blown desert ceremony of remembrance on the eve of the Iraq war – the beginning of their own war on terror.

Firefighter Matt Garvey from New York Fire Department Squad 1 had previously served in the first Gulf War with Iraq. His life was “dedicated to the service of the people of America” according to his friends.

Firefighter Charlie Anaya had also served in Iraq – rejoining the Marines in 1991 in order to take part in Desert Storm.

In all 343 New York Fire Department fire fighters were killed on 9/11.

‘An honoured brother not left behind’

Among the men at the desert service that day was one Marine reserve who had driven 42 hours from California to help dig out the victims at Ground Zero.

He later helped to load the body of Police Sergeant Mike Curtin onto a stretcher. He knew Curtin as the legendary Marine Corps Sergeant Major before he became a New York City cop.

A hugely respected man, one of the toughest of the tough, Mike Curtin was one of 23 police officers killed in the World Trade Center that day.

He was last heard by his wife Helga as he phoned to wish her a happy 40th birthday that September day.

Sergeant Curtin was a man accustomed to tough operations as a Marine who had also served in the Gulf War.

Not only was he one of the first on the scene at the World Trade Center attacks that day, he was also one of the first to respond to the first al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and to the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

Indeed, it was at the Oklahoma City bombing where Curtin had himself identified the marine uniform of Captain Randolph Guzman amidst the rubble. He became a hero when he took some seven hours to pull the body out saying: “We never leave our brothers behind.”

Sergeant Curtin’s coffin led a mile-long convoy of New York’s finest on 6 March 2002, marking the end of his journey of sacrifice for the people of America.

As the epitaph on Sergeant Major Mike Curtin’s flag-draped coffin would read: “An honoured brother not left behind.”

Back to Ground Zero

And so from Afghanistan to Iraq and on to Pakistan – the war on terror has stretched around the world and back again.

But it was to Ground Zero that New Yorkers went upon hearing the news of the death of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The mastermind of 9/11 taken down by the fellow soldiers of the US Marines, the US Navy Seals.

The day after meeting the men of 6th Battalion, the might of western military superiority would sweep through the UN demilitarised zone into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Thunderous British Challenger Two main battle tanks and US Marines Expeditionary Force units set to take part in a war against Saddam and, as it would turn out, al-Qaeda fighters – but not Osama bin Laden.

There are echoes of the capture and death of Saddam Hussein in the hunting down of bin Laden, and even more so in the final deaths of Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, in a special forces raid in Mosul.

For the United States it marks the end of an era. But just as the end of Saddam proved a false dawn for Iraq, so the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is still far from over.

For the men of the 6th Battalion this will be a moment full of symbolism.

After 10 years on the run, Bin Laden knew he would not escape the men who had heeded the call to the war on terror.

He knew he was not really wanted dead or alive as President Bush promised – death was his only option.