A Shared History: Iowan Reflects On Volunteering At Ground Zero On 9/11
John Paluska of Ottumwa began his freshman year of college at Fordham University in New York City in August 2001. He was interested in studying finance and thought New York City was the right place to begin his career.
When two commercial planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, Paluska was in his dormitory. He rushed to the roof of his dorm and watched the south tower collapse.
Everything changed for Paluska in that moment.
After the south tower collapsed, Paluska boarded an empty subway car and headed toward the World Trade Center. Alongside firefighters, military personal and other first responders, Paluska volunteered to help search for survivors, clear debris and recover human remains. To his knowledge, he was one of the youngest volunteers at ground zero.
Not too long after 9/11, Paluska went to a U.S. Army recruiting office to enlist. Paluska would go on to serve 10 years in the U.S. Army and serve in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Green Beret.
River to River host Ben Kieffer spoke to Paluska on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to reflect on that day, his service in the U.S. Army and his work with the 9/11 Museum and Memorial Visionary Network.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Kieffer: "It's important, I think, at the start of this conversation that our listeners know and visualize where you are. As we're having this conversation, you are in Manhattan — describe where you are and what you're looking out at."
Paluska: "Yeah, well, let me stand up and walk over to my window here. I'm looking at the North Tower, the pool here, One World Trade Center, which was rebuilt and to the tarp height there, it's 1,776 feet tall. So I'm here for the 9/11 anniversary."
"Let's go back to September 11, 2001 on what was, in New York, a sunny Tuesday morning. You were 18-years-old, a freshman attending Fordham University. Walk us through what you remember and when you first knew something was going on."
"I actually didn't have classes that day. I think it was my sixth day of college. About 10 people kind of busted into my room to wake me up in the morning as they were escorted away from their classes. I had one of those small 13-inch televisions with the built-in VCR, and was one of the only few that had a TV in their actual dormitory room. I remember the images of the towers burning and just complete chaos. I was a transplant from Iowa. And most of the kids that had come into my dormitory were local to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area and certainly had a tie to the area. I subsequently found out that they knew people who had actually perished. So we went to the top of our dormitory to look downtown, realized we didn't have the best view, went over to another dormitory that was a little bit higher. And from the rest of that morning we saw more unfold. As the last tower fell, the plume of smoke rising up and then just floating to the east into Long Island was certainly a sight that no one can forget. And thousands, millions of people saw that here on the morning of 9/11."
"I wonder if, on the top of that dormitory, with a view of the burning towers, soon to collapse South Tower, did you immediately recognize the weight of that moment on our history?"
"I think a lot of us were just in this sense of shock. There is also this kind of sense of bonding. We were freshmen, the group that I was with, you're here to meet your new friends for the next four years, and you kind of already had to find those friendships and bond to each other because what we were witnessing was terrible, and we didn't know whether it was 10 people or a few hundred people and then thousands of folks. But we knew that it was awful and terrible. And, if you look around and you're not looking downtown and you're like — you said it was sunny and blue skies and a beautiful day. I think it was like the first day of school for a lot of parents. I think there are some midterm elections. It's about as good of a day in New York City that you could have weather-wise."
"I understand on that very day you made your way to the downtown, to the World Trade Center area. What inspired you to do that, and how soon after witnessing? We'll talk about the second tower collapsing: You were on that dorm roof when it collapsed. You actually saw the very moment with your own eyes."
"Yeah, you could just see the larger plume of smoke go up. I mean, we were a couple of miles up north. So, certainly, a safe distance away. But I think there was just this feeling of confusion that probably turned to loss and grief. But for me, it was maybe a little bit delayed compared to some of my peers, but ultimately turned into this motivation. I mean, I grew up in Iowa, ran around my parents' 400 acre farm and was just kind of always ambitious to help out and do chores and meet friends and locals who I could go and help. And so I went and walked to the subway. The D train jumped on the Orange Line D train, and I'll tell you, that was the most eerie ride downtown I had ever seen. The subway cars were just absolutely packed going north, and there wer a few of us that ended up going down. But I remember I just grabbed a little bit of—"
"To be clear, most were going north away and you were going toward?"
"Yeah, I mean, I think there are probably, 1,000 or more in the subway going north when we met together at a stop, and there were maybe six people in the entire subway going southbound. So it certainly was a very eerie and empty ride going downtown. And ultimately, we had to stop at some point because you couldn't take the subway train all the way down to the World Trade Center stop. We ended up having to get out at 14th Street or something like that. And, as we exited the subway, it was a city of chaos. There were just – running, crying, ambulances, fire trucks. We began to see people covered in smoke. That to me was right when the call to volunteer came in, to sprint as hard and as far as I could get down to that pile."
"So you came up out of the subway, several blocks away saw this chaos, went to as close as you could to the World Trade Center. What did that, in fact, turn out to be? Because at this point, both towers are down. When did you arrive and what was the scene when you were immediately upon the wreckage of those two buildings?"
"I tell my story to more and more people. I mean, I think it's good to recount this shared history, and it's also good for me. But I've learned that my experience and ability actually to kind of gain access to help on top of ground zero is somewhat rare because, in the first moments, NYPD was pushing a whole bunch of force down there to block and keep people away from the site. And, I happened to just kind of walk in at an area or on a street where they were or some blockades, and ended up losing most of the group that I was in. I think they just didn't want to go down any further. There was a call out to me as I was walking by the street and it looked like an alley. It ended up being kind of like an alley into the Bureau Manhattan community college. And they said, 'Hey, are you here for CMR?' And I said, 'Well, what's what, CMR?' They said 'civilian military relief. And to my understanding it's a group of union workers, they do the air conditioning, electricity, etc., that had some type of relationship with the local National Guard units. The bridges and tunnels were shut down. They allowed people to exit, but no one to come in. So you can imagine a National Guard Unit, everyone. You've got five boroughs, people are living outside of Manhattan. And so I said, I'll help. I want to help. And they said, 'OK, what's your next of kin?' I said, 'What's kin? What's your next of kin mean?' And they're like, 'Write down your parents' information. Are you married?' I'm like, 'No, I'm 18 years old,' and I put my Social Security number down and then over the next couple of hours, we started getting supplies and military gear, and I realize the seriousness of what was about to unfold. I mean, the pile was still covered in a ton of smoke at this point. It took 12 hours for it to kind of calm down. So people weren't really going on to the pile at this point yet. And so it was more kind of equipping and understanding what we were going to do. But, to one item that, when I knew how serious it was — a five ton military pickup truck, old school camouflage pulls up, and I start unloading hundreds of black body bags. And the smell of these old body bags that were probably sitting in some warehouse heated up was, I can't — I can't take that visual, that action, that memory, out of my mind. And then as the next couple of days transformed, I was using those body bags and it’s very sad."
" You've shared with us a really eerie, amazing photo from when you were on the site of ground zero, helping with rescue and recovery efforts. I wonder if you can describe the photo."
"Yes. That photo, I believe, was taken around 3 p.m. on September 12, after I came off my first, rather long shift on the pile. In the background, to the West Side, you can see some of the remnants of the World Trade Center, and to just north and to the right is where the North Tower would be. I'd say most of my time focused on the North Tower pile. I mean, you can see some of the Trident structures, jagged and still standing. There is actually an American flag that was on one of the corner buildings there. If you look closely on the on the right side, it's just me in that photo, I mean, there weren't a lot of people really on top of the direct pile, kind of in these early days. As I mentioned earlier, it was still fire. It was still — the smoke was settling down."
"You have a blue helmet on, this white smock, you have this orange high visibility construction vest and this large respirator mask on as well. Thank goodness for that, right? Because of all the toxins we know that were in the air that day. Tell me, John, about what stands out in your mind most — a moment that communicates what it was like to work in that wreckage, recovering bodies, recovering body parts, rescuing people, I assume, as well, early on. What image? What moment stands out for you?"
"I think about the sounds, and I either, when I go back to my memory, it's either silence, or it's the rumbling, the sounds of fires cracking and gas pipes continuing to go off and just these beeps from all these, personnel finders from the FDNY. And it was... it was a long walk to the center. It was hard. It was a war zone. It was hard just to move sometimes 10 feet because of the jagged rebar that we were walking through. There was fire. We were vomiting. You mentioned that I was wearing a respirator, to a degree. I had a disposable camera with 17 photos on it that I happened to grab. And, I think it was it was more just like, 'Oh, put the respirator on for the photo...' But for the most part, I wasn't wearing the respirator. And so the images that stick out to me most are when we had the opportunity to line up. Calls together and drape a body bag with an American flag. I mean, that was the visual that would not help me sleep at night. That was the visual that compelled me to later enlist in the military. That was the visual that just gave me grief. From all of these workers who were just tired. We were beat down — 343 FDNY firefighters. I navigated around a number of FDNY trucks. And I understood quickly that the amount of firefighters that were at those locations, it was not a place for me to be and search. And so I moved more into the center of the pile with some of these union workers. And I think the victims that we found were more from the top floors of the North Tower."
"How long did it take you to process that? You talked about the image of draping the flag over a body bag more than once. What about that moment? What was said in those moments, what stayed with you or troubled you about that?"
"I think to me, here we are, decades later, post-9/11, and we've certainly come to have multiple meanings and motivations to see the American flag. And, I am one that understands how people are introduced to the American flag. We all have our rights and opinions and respects. And to me, I mean, it was instantaneous that it meant service. It meant camaraderie. It meant, ultimately respect for these individuals. And we're passing along these body bags and I'm moving along airplane latrines and aircraft wheels that I'm touching as I'm navigating this pile, and so there's certainly the human aspect of loss. It was compelling to do something more. And you felt that — there's already the loss on the pile, and what's next? I don't think like the whole Al-Qaeda, Taliban, terrorism thing had sunk in yet. It was more focus on the mission and the task at hand because there was just so much commotion going on at the pile on ground zero."
"After nearly a week working in rescue recovery at ground zero, what did you do then? I mean, you talk about it and it has been a long time since that experience. But I imagine that that experience is — a lot of people would say it's as fresh as yesterday. How long did it take you to be able to talk about those moments? You seem very collected in recounting what is a huge national trauma and you were at the very epicenter."
"Yeah. So I was medically retired from a roadside bomb IED, injuries in 2017. I think a lot of what I did on ground zero, I really just held close to me. I think there was some guilt for not knowing any of the victims that I recovered. There’s maybe some guilt for seeing all of those around me suffer grief. I returned to campus and reflected, and it was, maybe a month later, it was in October that I went and met with a U.S. Army recruiter to begin the enlistment process and knew that, it's going to be a career of service. I had planned either to go in the military or maybe a federal law enforcement agency. But I ended up withdrawing from the undergraduate business school and started taking courses in Arabic. I studied abroad, overseas in Egypt, to learn more Arabic and Middle Eastern history, CIA intelligence, political science courses that evolved around U.N. policies, etc. I actually am the only undergrad from my class here to receive an undergraduate degree in individualized studies, which took a little bit of working on the deans. But it's something I'm proud of."
"I didn't mention earlier, but there's really only two times that I slept in the seven day period and the first one I think was day three. And it was on the seventh floor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. I remember as soon as we woke up, we knew we needed to sprint back to the pile. My memory of just, 'OK, we've got to get going, we've been slacking off too much.' And then the second time was probably on day six, where I was probably quite exhausted at this point, and started helping iron workers and carry water while they're doing some welding. And I just fell asleep. I remember sitting down next to a bucket and just passed out and woke up a couple of hours later. And so, those were the times where each moment I woke up from those two events, I had to do something, and that's I think it's kind of changed me. Now I'm a civilian, and I work in a corporate realm, but I've been able to tie in through my various roles of focus on military hiring and focus on 9/11 education, focus on ensuring that we never forget. And take care of myself personally, mentally, mental health. There are things I couldn't talk about for 18 years. When you have a victim that you're unable to recover, but that you need to advance and look for survivors — that is something that is — that is something that was very, very tough for me to deal with."
"Understandably so.... We're so grateful for John joining us today to recall 9/11 and how it dramatically changed his life. John, I wonder if we could pick up the story here with that visit to a recruiter. You have spent more than 10 years in the military, earning your Green Beret deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, other locations. You earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in action and medically retired from the military. What parts of your deployment do you want to talk most about? I mean, Afghanistan is where we launched the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban."
"First, thanks for having me and covering this and especially, the importance and remembrance of 9/11 and why we are where we are here today. I'll speak to both, just war in general, between Afghanistan and Iraq. I look at people as people, all of humanity, we are one. And, I think if I reflect back on many of the successes that we had in combat, it was because we valued the people we worked with. We worked alongside and we tried to understand the culture that we were going into. So, for me, going to war was also a human problem that we had to figure out, to help others. It's a young group of folks that goes over and answers the call to volunteer and defend this country. And I think, sometimes there's a lot of confusion on some of our missions. But, ultimately, when you're in harm's way, you have to trust your leaders and get to action. So, yeah, I mean, most of my years — I spent nearly a five year period on my first kind of iteration of combat, where I spent some time overseas in the Middle East, every single year. And it was heavy. It was exhausting. There's a sense of adrenaline. There's a sense of staying alert that, naturally, I think veterans can't turn off. I think it's benefited me, but it also takes a toll, physically and mentally. You have to be a leader to yourself, you have to be a leader to those around you. And, sharing a foxhole with the men and women next to me that I was able to serve with was the proudest thing I think I've done in my life, my career so far."
"Can you recall one day one mission, a few hours of one mission perhaps, that you think we would benefit from hearing and that you can share? I imagine there must be so many memories that are very difficult to share. I don't want to push you there if you don't want to talk about those."
"One thing that's helped the veterans, and I've noticed there are a lot of my peers is having and sharing those stories. Unfortunately, Vietnam and Korean veterans weren't given the opportunity to come away from the war zone and decompress."
"There is a time where I was in Afghanistan and I was with my Special Forces team and our mission was related to village support operations. Essentially, we were embedded with some of the district governors, chiefs of police and Intel entities. I controlled a region of three districts that support about 270,000 people. And so, you've got a 12-man Green Beret team supporting 78,000 people. They needed basic medical needs, they needed schooling, they needed legal contracts. And, certainly, they needed security, because you can't accomplish anything without security. And it's this cycle I think that I learned education versus security - of educating, training folks versus equipping them. In between missions, I would meet with my district governor six nights a week and, post-mission, decompress, walk over to his compound and we would chat about what the situations are. Sometimes he'd bring in his intelligence chief, and he brought in some of the other districts and I had to meet one of the district chiefs of police, who was known to not be a great person. He was involved in some awful events that took place against the Americans months and years prior. And I had to shake a hand at the end of that meeting, and essentially negotiate how my next six month military operation with my Green Beret team would go. We suddenly defined what I needed to accomplish and what he wanted and what he wanted me not to do. And I think, coming back from that meeting, thinking about my commander's intent, thinking about this strategic goal (I was protecting the ring route to Kabul and Bagram), how I could navigate the tribal differences, navigate the political nuances and the dangers to keep my men alive. I think that meeting - to shake the hand with an individual and make a deal, it's very - it's heavy. It's a heavy handshake that has a lot of lives on the line."
"John, you earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in action. I wonder if those circumstances are something you talk about?"
"Yeah, I can. That’s when I was back in Iraq in 2006, I was up in Baghdad. My platoon was assigned to an area that was a mix of Shia and Sunni. Muqtada al-Sadr had just declared full-scale war in the fall of 2006 against the American forces. And so not only was it a beehive full of Sunni and Shia insurgents, we were beginning to get an uptick of attacks. And a few nights prior was to-date, and until my medical retirement, was the largest firefight that we had been in. I got a brand new second lieutenant meeting up with this platoon that had already been there for four months. So I'm learning the lay of the land, fresh out of Ranger School, Airborne School, and I mean, it was real. It was not blanks. They were real bullets. And, coming off of that, we knew that it was dangerous. We ended up returning a couple of days later. This is my 13th day as a platoon leader, first combat tour, and they had a retaliatory attack on us."
"I was out there, my vehicle got hit with a rocket propelled grenade. We had some type of protection system on the outside of our Stryker, and it blew up the RPG Munition. It started my vehicle a little bit on fire, so we had to break contact to put the fire out. I didn't have all my vehicles right with me at the time. And so we ended up coming back and down and down a road, and there was an IED that was laid. These were Iranian made. They almost look like a coffee can with a copper plate in front and very precise, explosively formed penetrator or projectile. And it went off as we were driving along. My gunner was next to me and the slug, per se, went straight through his legs and missed me by about 18 inches to my left and took off one of his legs immediately. Then I was covered in about 150 - 160 pieces of shrapnel. I had a large three inch piece in my thigh, next to my femoral artery. There was what we call the star cluster - a signal flare, a secondary explosion that hit my hand. And then a vehicle fire started inside."
"The last thing I remember is there's a fire. I'm probably going to die. And then because of the halon gas, pushing out the oxygen, I pass out, and certainly had a concussion. So I wake up, and the vehicle of 14 folks or so was just down to Travis and I. I could barely breathe and was looking down and my legs were all bloodied and my left hand wasn't working. And I asked Travis, tried to get him to respond, and I thought 'it's no use,' he's either dead or in immediate need of medical care. And so I, kind of tried to use one arm and climb out of the top of my vehicle and kind of — it's been described to me that I flopped over the side 'like a sack of potatoes.' I told one of my sergeants, 'Travis is in the vehicle. You need to go get in there now.' He later ended up earning the Bronze Star for the way that he was able to get in and save him, which, which was awesome. But that certainly was a traumatic event. It was my 13th day, fresh second lieutenant and here I am, earned my combat infantry badge on a C-17, back to Walter Reed. But I did get to be with Travis. We saw each other a couple of times when we met up at Walter Reed. And he survived. And one of the 9/11 anniversaries we were able to link up. He’s a bilateral amputee, pretty high on the legs, but we did complete a 5K together."
"That's both awful and wonderful. John, did you lose in this operation, or other operations, men in your unit, women in your unit? Did you lose friends as well?"
"We lost many friends. So, growing up in Ottumwa, in between getting out of, I think, Ranger School and then going straight to my unit to deploy, I ended up playing a round of golf with a family friend and friend of mine, high school peer Bill Schiller. I got released from the hospital after recovery in late December. And it was about a week later, on December 31, when Corporal John Schiller, from Ottumwa, was killed by an IED. Immediately, as I learned the news, I went over to Bill and Liz's house, and saw war from a very different side. I think that really compelled me to want to know why we were at war, why war was happening, why people were actually pulling the trigger and dropping bombs on each other. And I think that ultimately led me to want to join the Green Berets and work with our host nation partners around the globe and the world and understand cultures. But in my early career, I assisted as casualty assistance officer, organizing memorials, flying to Arlington and burying those killed in action. So my career very probably started off very different than most folks at the early beginning of this global war on terrorism."
"John, before our time runs out, there are so many things we could talk about your experience that are inspiring to all of us. I want to talk about your Memorial Museum and Visionary Network that you co-founded. Having been propelled into service because of 9/11 and serving in Afghanistan, what are your thoughts now that the U.S. has left that country and the Taliban is in power?"
"I think it's easier to talk about some of the conflict, the war missions and my Purple Heart, than maybe that topic, it's so fresh right now. I have a lot of emotions, a lot of pain for the people over there, for the refugees, for the Americans, for the abrupt withdrawal and for all the time that was put in by so many amazing service members. It's a balance of me reflecting on the great effort that all of the intelligence agencies and our service members put in versus really getting into the details. And I think I would rather spend this time talking about how we can continue to remember 9/11."
"Let's do that. You are the co-founder of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Visionary Network. Tell us about the network's mission. Why you helped found this."
"This was kind of identified by 9/11 memorial and museum staff, which is located on the former sites of ground zero. It was a group of us, so myself, the youngest rescue recovery/volunteer on 9/11, and three family members who had lost their fathers in the FDNY and one who lost his cousin. And we were consistently doing tours or asking to do different educational engagement and bringing different groups in, and they had kind of got us together to meet. What we realized is that there was a generational gap. And those who were very heavily involved in remembering and educating about 9/11. You have people serving in the military now [who weren’t alive on 9/11]. We knew that it was on us to ensure that we develop and form this network of like-minded individuals who either were directly affected by the events of 9/11 or were not. And the network has actually grown to more members who were not, like myself. I mean, this is a shared history that affects everyone, everyone that was of age remembers where they were on 9/11, they remember what it compelled them to do and how to honor that day."
"As you just referred, everyone who experienced 9/11 remembers the incredible shock that day: The sadness, the anger, but also the unity that it summoned among Americans. We now live in a time of great dis-unity, partisan divide. You must have taken some time to think about what would it take to have a better sense of common purpose of among Americans?"
"This is on us. A moment in history to educate ourselves on why people have certain views, why people are compelled for certain beliefs, and disagreements. And it's a moment to reset. Every year my calendar kind of clicks around 9/11 rather than December 25 or January 1 for others. And it gets me to reflect on why America is so great. 9/12 was a day when we woke up and we knew that we just got punched in the face. But what I saw and witnessed, even coming back to Iowa from New York City was an incredible display of patriotism, of unity. And I hope, as we continue to grow as a nation that has gone through some heartaches, we can bring some of that back. I mean, I'll never forget driving around Iowa and seeing newspapers that post-9 /11 put American flags out, saying please display this in your window. There's some debate about, just, a symbol as simple or complex as the American flag. But we need to find something like that each day. I learned as a Green Beret that people are people, and we're all humanity and it's how you treat each other and understand why people are different. And so I hope we can continue to move on forward."