By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT MEADE, Md., Sept. 7, 2011 - On Sept. 11, 2001, Army Spc. Qiyu "Steve" Luo was fresh off active duty and preparing for his first weekend drill with the New York Army National Guard.
What Luo and his fellow 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment soldiers didn't realize was that they were about to embark on what he called "the ultimate civil disturbance training" as first responders to the 9/11 attack just 40 blocks from their armory.
"I hadn't seen my first drill yet, but then I guess I had the biggest drill of my life," he said.
Reflecting back a decade later, Luo said the experience forever changed him, his unit and the National Guard he continues to serve today.
News of the 9/11 attack swept quickly across the unit, with members arriving for duty that morning even before they were called, Luo recalled. Even a couple of the soldiers who had been away without leave appeared, ready to do whatever was needed.
"Just out of nowhere, everyone showed up," Luo said. "This is where everyone knew they needed to be."
By the following morning, the guardsmen were on the scene at ground zero, Luo said, setting up a security perimeter around the site and supporting the rescue and recovery effort.
The unit members, many personally affected by the attack, worked tirelessly as they helped fire and police department officials search for victims and doing whatever tasks were required to support the effort.
"Every day we were doing different things," Luo said. "The first day, I was helping dig out. The next day, I was guarding the mortuary or escorting people who lived in the area" so they could retrieve essentials from their homes.
After the first week, Luo began rotating in and out of the area over the next six months. When not physically on the scene, his focus was on ensuring Guard members who had been called to active duty were getting paid.
Morale was high, Luo recalled, higher than he'd ever anticipated. "Everyone was doing their job, what they had joined to do," he said. "People felt a calling."
That calling, the Guard members realized, would extend long beyond the 9/11 response mission. Ultimately, almost all would deploy to combat, either to Afghanistan or, like Luo, to Iraq, from November 2004 to August 2005.
Now a sergeant first class still serving with the 42nd Infantry Division, Luo said 9/11 changed the National Guard in ways he never imagined possible.
"It triggered a dramatic change in the Guard," he said. "It went from being a 'frat boy organization' to a professional fighting force. We went from being a strategic reserve to an operational reserve."
Since 9/11, the New York Army National Guard has sent almost 8,000 soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, noted Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, New York's adjutant general. Among those who have deployed are members of the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters, the first Guard division headquarters to deploy to combat since the Korean War.
Today, the New York Guard is preparing to send more than 2,000 soldiers overseas in 2012 and 2013, Murphy said. These include the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team -- the same unit that deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and will return there next year.
"The 8,000 soldiers and airmen who've joined the New York National Guard since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 probably wouldn't recognize the National Guard that existed on Sept. 10, 2001," Murphy said in a message to his command. "The National Guard today is a more demanding organization to belong to," with greater expectations on it from the state and nation.
Luo said his personal role as a 9/11 first responder, and as a soldier in that operational National Guard force has changed his view of the world.
"I went from being there at ground zero picking up body parts to actively engaging in combat in the war on terror," he said. "For me, being there to witness all that in person, up close and personal, has definitely been a life-changing experience."
Special Report: Remembering 9/11