It was a dystopian neighborhood: trucks had crashed into the sides of buildings; helicopters had crashed into the roof of another, and piles of rubble and concrete everywhere you looked. That was what greeted me as I came to the Lorton training site last month to witness a competition for Rescuer of the Quarter, conducted by the 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company, which is the only such Company in the Department of Defense.
“This Company is one of one in the Army,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Greg Galassi, with The Army Aviation Brigade. “There is no other company that does what they do, with these capabilities and training. These Soldiers are the best of the best in the engineer field.”
Capt. Joseph Thomson, commander of the 911th, said his team specializes in urban search and rescue, so the Lorton training site offers much of what they may encounter on a bad day when moments may mean lives. He said its members specialize in five technical rescue disciplines: rope rescue; confined space rescue; structural collapse; mine or tunnel rescue; and trench rescue.
“The technical search emphasizes the need to fully search the entire structure, whatever it may be, because you’ll never know where a survivor may be, or what equipment will be down there,” said Lt. Joel Via, the company’s executive officer. “They have to find the components for a tripod for rope rescue and assemble it out here. The catch is that even if you find more than two components at a time, you can only bring one back at a time, adding to time pressure.”
When doing a rope-climb up a structure, Spc. Dashaun Miller-Kinard carried a 50-pound pack as well.
“That represents ascending up to an area with all our gear, to keep from going up and down, and calling for pieces we need,” Miller-Kinard said, adding that he was feeling good about his performance so far. “I’m confident on a concrete breach, but I just didn’t make the hole big enough, and I got caught and ripped the seat of my pants on the rebar,” he said, tugging at the fresh hole in his uniform. “I’m feeling good about my day, so we’ll see how it goes.”
In 2001, after an airliner was smashed into the Pentagon, the company commander and first Sergeant moved the team to the disaster site without waiting for orders, and spent the next ten days in search and rescue operations. Because of that, the company was re-designated the 911th in 2006 for its actions.
That level of motivation is what drives this unit, according to Col. Winfield Adkins, commander, U.S. Army Aviation Brigade.
“They’re very motivated Soldiers; they fill my motivational tank every day I come in. Being their commander is a privilege just watching what they do,” Adkins said. “They take a lot of pride and care in learning their craft and knowing their mission-set.”
Skilled rescuers need to arrive on site in the shortest time possible, which is why they’re paired with the 12th Aviation Battalion.
“The Soldiers in the 911th are an extremely rare combination of art and science with folks who are technically proficient at what they do; but what they do requires such an extraordinary amount of imagination,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Forsheee, 12th Aviation commander. “If you think about how challenging it is to find people who can do both those things extremely well, that’s rare – and we’ve got a company full of them here at Fort Belvoir.”
After scores and times were calculated, Thomson announced the winner of the voluntary competition at the day’s end. Apparently, the torn uniform didn’t deduct from the score, as Miller-Kinard edged out the next competitor by just three points, and said “This feels good. I’d like to thank all my past team leaders – this was fun,” he said.
“They are here to respond on the nation’s worst day, and they’re ready to do it every day,” said Forshee.