July 18, 2002
Alexandria has seen its share of heroes throughout its long history. Each national conflict has produced them, from George Washington to "Rocky" Versace. Now it has one for The War on Terrorism.
Eric Moreland Jones was awarded the U.S. Department of Defense Medal For Valor recognizing his "performing an act of heroism or sacrifice with voluntary risk of personal safety in the face of danger." That act of courage occurred Sept. 11, 2001. when Jones rushed into the Pentagon inferno to save others.
During the award ceremony on Monday, in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Personnel Policy, emphasized, "When something really bad happens it is human nature to want to run away as soon as possible. But the humanity in some of us says put the accelerator to the floor and help."
Eric Jones and the other Medal For Valor recipient that day, Steve Anthony DeChiaro of Freehold, NJ, were described by Van Alstyne as the kind of people "who put the accelerator to the floor and help. In pinning the medal to each of their suit jackets, Van Alstyne said, "It's an honor to recognize two American heroes."
A 26-year-old native of Oakland, CA, Jones, a bachelor, resides in the Avalon Apartments off Eisenhower Avenue. He is also a volunteer firefighter and paramedic with the Prince George's County Fire Department, which he joined in 1993.
"I was driving on I-395 that morning when I saw the plane hit the Pentagon. I realized that my skills as a firefighter and paramedic might be helpful since initial rescue personnel had not yet arrived," Jones explained.
"I pulled into the South parking lot and ran toward the damaged area. I helped carry wounded from the building until we were told to take cover because there was rumor that another plane was on the way. As it turned out it was one of our own F16 fighter planes giving cover," he said.
IN A NARRATIVE Jones wrote following the attacks on the Pentagon and New York City, he described what he did.
"My involvement with the attacks of September 11 was simple; like countless other Americans, I simply stepped forward to offer what ever help I could."
That modesty was on display again this week following his receipt of the medal. "It's an incredible honor to be here surrounded by the names of so many heroes throughout America's history. When Steve and I were notified of this honor, we both asked 'why us.' Then we realized we were just representative of what so many had done that day," he said.
But, as Van Alstyne reminded the packed house audience, "Their story doesn't end on September 11. They both stayed on to help for 72 hours-plus. It takes a different kind of courage to stay hour after hour hoping there would be others to save and help."
JONES DESCRIBED the ensuing hours as a cacophony of sounds and nauseating smells. "It was total chaos. People were running and walking around in shock, not quite knowing what had happened. We would carry someone out and as soon as we turned around someone else would appear out of nowhere.
"We could hear people calling out, clapping, or banging to lead rescuers towards them. Barely visible through the thick smoke, I noticed a man dodging falling concrete while walking with a severely burned woman. This man was Staff Sergeant Chris Braman, and the woman he was carrying was Sheila Moody.
"Mrs. Moody was so badly burned she could not speak to call out for help. All she could do was clap her hands and pray someone would find her. Sergeant Braman answered her prayers...it was quite wrenching to carry them out because in doing so we caused them even more pain."
Sheila Moody survived.
The narrative justification for the award describes the conditions in which both Jones and DeChiaro placed themselves to help others that morning.
"With fire blazing, air heavy with smoke and other noxious fumes, walls that were diagonally caved inward, building debris that hung from overhead and stuck out sideways, contaminated water up to his knees and underfoot debris that was submerged in the water, Mr. Jones, at great danger to himself, carried and helped people to safety and medical triage."
It goes on to tell how Jones personally saved a first responder firefighter who he saw "in grave danger on a ladder, his suit in flames. Without hesitation, he pulled the burning fireman from the ladder to safety" put out the fire and "then entered the Pentagon at ground zero."
BY THE THIRD DAY Jones admitted, "We were all beyond exhaustion. Chris and I were sitting solemnly on the back of a truck. For some reason, we looked up at a hole in the building and saw an amazing and beautiful sight. Standing proud and tall amongst all the devastation was an apparently intact, United States Marine Corps Flag.
"Despite being less than two feet from the shear line where the walls had collapsed, it had withstood everything. The flag had survived. For us it represented good, smirking in the face of evil, hope gently waving off despair.
"Then Marine Major Dan Panteleo walked toward us. He had seen the flag, too. We all knew someone had to bring the flag home."
After getting permission to save the flag, provided they could do it safely, the three, Jones, DeChiaro, and Panteleo, persuaded a crane operator to hook a basket up to his crane and raise Panteleo, with some tools they had rounded up, close enough to grab the flag and retrieve it. That's when the nation got the first glimpse of Jones and DeChairo as they, along with Panteleo, carried the unscathed flag up the hill to Marine Corps Headquarters.
AS THE CAMERAS flashed Monday in The Hall of Heroes, that triumvirate came together once again as Jones summoned Panteleo to the stage to share in their spotlight. But none of this really surprises Jones' mother, Sheila, who flew in from California to be with her son at his moment of honor.
"He's always had a lot of heart and has been without fear. He was one of the first at home to become a master diver. He used to swim among the sharks to play with them," she revealed.
"When I heard about the plane crashes and saw the pictures on television, I was afraid he would be involved. I got on the phone and called but got his answering machine. I left a message for him to get in his car and get out of there. He didn't. But he did call every night to say he was okay," she recalled.
Heroism seems to run in Eric's blood. Seated immediately in front of him in a wheelchair, as he received his medal was his grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Conway B. Jones, Sr., one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He received numerous medals including purple hearts and bronze stars for his actions in World War II and Korea.
His father, retired Air Force Colonel Conway B. Jones, Jr., flew approximately 80 combat missions in Vietnam. He was also present to honor his son.
AFTER IT WAS decided there were no more personnel to be saved in the rubble, Jones and DeChiaro volunteered to work with Lieutenant Colonel Mauhee W. Edmundson, Assistant Director, Reserve and Medical Manpower, who had been put in charge of the mortuary affairs team.
"For the next three days, I worked as part of the team responsible for recovering the remains of those killed. We carried body bags to a nearby refrigerator truck. The FBI asked Sergeant Braman and I to work inside the damaged area locating, tagging, and placing remains into those body bags," Jones explained.
LTC Edmundson said of her team's efforts, "I couldn't have had a better team. If you could get a whole country full of these type of people you'd have a great nation. They not only performed beyond belief, they did it with dignity and total respect for those who were killed. And they did it with only an hour or two of sleep per night."
As if all the dedication and effort at the Pentagon was not enough, Jones then drove to New York City on Sept. 14. Not being able to sleep, even though he had been on his feet nearly constantly for three-plus days, upon his arrival in New York, Jones went back to work helping with the efforts at another ground zero - the rubble that was once the Twin Towers.
He and other members of his Maryland fire department spent several days there working along side members of the Fire Department of New York. "We reported to the search and rescue command and they told us to join one of the bucket brigades.
"We would pass five gallon plastic buckets of rubble to central piles. These were reexamined for body parts or evidence. The air smelled of death and burning plastic. The word that comes closest to describing the scene is wasteland."
JONES FINALLY RETURNED to his home with a lifetime of memories seared into his consciousness from his two week journey into hell and back. He has resumed his studies at GWU toward a Masters Degree in Public Health.
He earned his bachelors from GWU in Health Sciences with an emphasis on emergency medicine in 1998. He says his next challenge is Medical School with a goal of specializing in emergency medicine and trauma surgery.
Jones wrote in his recollections, "My memories from those two weeks are composed of extremes. I witnessed life among death, goodness in the face of evil, hope surrounded by tremendous despair, faith through disbelief, and beauty standing stubbornly defiant among total destruction.
"But what impressed and simultaneously confused me the most was the dichotomy between goodness and evil. Perhaps one day I will understand how it is possible for human beings to be capable of such evil and hate yet, also, such incredible love and kindness."
Whatever the future holds for Eric Moreland Jones, it will always include The Medal For Valor. And, his name is now among those which grace the walls of the Hall of Heroes as a testament to courage, selflessness, and the spirit of will.