In an award ceremony earlier this month, Eric Jones was named one of America’s first "heroes" in the War on Terrorism.
During the July 15 ceremony, in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, Jones was awarded the U.S. Department of Defense Medal of Valor, recognizing his "act of heroism or sacrifice with voluntary risk of personal safety in the face of danger" on Sept. 11, when Jones rushed into the Pentagon inferno to save others.
"When something really bad happens, it is human nature to want to run away as soon as possible," said Lt. Gen. John Van Alstyne, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Personnel Policy. "But the humanity in some of us says put the accelerator to the floor and help."
Jones and another Medal For Valor recipient Steve DeChiaro, of Freehold, N.J, were described by Van Alstyne as the kind of who do just that. In pinning the medal to each of their suit jackets, Van Alstyne said, "It's an honor to recognize two American heroes."
Jones, a 26-year-old native of Oakland, Cal., lives in the Avalon Apartments in Alexandria. He’s served as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic with the Prince George's County Fire Department since 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.
At the Pentagon, he helped carry wounded personnel from the building, until the word went around to take cover. "We were told… that another plane was on the way. As it turned out it was one of our own F16 fighter planes giving cover," he said.
<b>IN A NARRATIVE</b> Jones wrote following the attacks on the Pentagon and New York City, he downplayed his heroism: "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."
His modesty was on display again this week after the medal ceremony. "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?'" Jones said. "Then we realized we were just representative of what so many had done that day."
But the medals were not just for what Jones and DeChiaro did that day, Van Alstyne told the crowd. "Their story doesn't end on September 11. They both stayed on to help for 72 hours-plus," he said. "It takes a different kind of courage to stay hour after hour, hoping there would be others to save and help."
<b>JONES DESCRIBED</b> the days at the Pentagon 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."
The report supporting the medal award also revealed the details of Jones’ rescue of a firefighter. The man’s protective suit had caught fire, and Jones, "without hesitation… pulled the burning fireman from the ladder to safety," put out the fire and "then entered the Pentagon at ground zero."
<b>NONE OF THIS</b> 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 she heard about the attack on the Pentagon, Sheila Jones said, she immediately called her son, urging him to get to safety. He didn’t, but he did call her every night, she said, to let her know he was safe.
Heroism seems to run in Jones’ blood. During the ceremony he was joined by his grandfather Conway B. Jones Sr. , a retired lieutenant colonel and one of the original Tuskegee airmen, and his father, retired Air Force Colonel Conway B. Jones, Jr. The elder Jones received Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars for his service in World War II and the Korean War, and Eric Jones’ father flew some 80 combat missions over Vietnam.
<b>AFTER IT WAS</b> decided there were no more personnel to be saved in the rubble, Jones and DeChiaro volunteered the mortuary affairs team. He spent the next three days in the rubble, locating, tagging and carrying remains to a refrigerator truck
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."
<b>JONES FINALLY RETURNED</b> 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 George Washington University, working toward a master’s degree in Public Health. Jones earned his bachelor’s degree from GWU in 1998, majoring in health sciences with an emphasis on emergency medicine. His next challenge, he said, 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."