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Pond: Goodwill triumphs over evil

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- "I will never forget going back into the Pentagon two days later, while it was still burning, and smelling that awful smell of smoke and I think burned bodies," Col. Gary Pond recalled five years after he almost became a victim of a terrorist act. "It was a sickening smell." 

The smells, sights and sounds of that grim Tuesday morning in 2001 when the United States was attacked by terrorists in New York City and the Pentagon are forever etched in the minds of Americans - especially those who experienced the atrocities first hand. 

Colonel Pond, commander of the 982nd Training Group, was one of many who stood in disbelief after the second airliner hit the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. He did as most other Americans in New York and the Washington, D.C., area did; he called his wife. 

He said she asked if they were ordered to evacuate the Pentagon as other federal buildings were ordered to be vacated. 

"Gary, I think the Pentagon, of all places, would be a target," he said his wife told him.
"I don't think we'll be ordered to run away," Colonel Pond said he replied. "We are in the military, and this is our post." 

He turned to his co-workers and jokingly told them of the conversation he just had with his wife. Then he heard the familiar sound of jet engines seconds before a large explosion. 

"We then looked out the window and we saw a huge fireball," Colonel Pond recalled. "(We saw) thick black smoke and lots of paper floating upwards from the impact site." 

The colonel said he and his co-workers locked up the office and evacuated. Although the groups' first thought was to help out in the rescue, he said the smoke and armed guards prevented them from going in any direction but out. He realized it was going to take them a while to get out of the building as thousands of military and civilian employees were trying to make their way to the south parking entrance. 

In fact, it took Colonel Pond about 30 minutes to evacuate, because he helped a handicapped person evacuate safely. 

The scene outside the building was of organized chaos. Security personnel worked to secure the site and medical and emergency crews made their way to the side of the building hit by the airliner. 

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper of I-395 South. 

"It was like the work was coming to an end and everyone across the river was running away," Colonel Pond said. 

The colonel eventually made it to his home in Kingstown, Va., walking most of the 15-mile trek and getting rides from two motorists, including a retired three-star general. 

Colonel Pond said he was back to work two days later, with the familiar smell of the black smoke and the visual damage of the crash about 20 yards from his office. He began working on the Crisis Action Team, managing the flow of munitions to combatant commands. 

The Salvation Army and other religious organizations set up relief tents to take care of those working late hours as the country's military might was preparing to strike back. 

"It was good to see goodwill triumphing over evil in those dark days," he said. 

A lot has changed in the military since then, the colonel said. The Air Force has adopted the role of the Army and Marines, providing joint support on the ground in the areas of responsibility instead of providing a primarily support role. 

"We have administration specialists driving convoys and earning Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts," Colonel Pond said of the role of today's Airman. "This shift in attitude has made it easier for the Air Force to integrate itself into joint operations." 

The new look of the Air Force has even reached the men and women of the 982nd TRG, the colonel said. Instructors from the world's leading field maintenance training organization have gone into Afghanistan and Iraq to train Airmen in the field. 

"We have had several of our instructors deployed to Iraq, teaching aircraft maintenance to Iraqi Air Force technicians," he said. "The 982nd has deployed several mobile training teams in support of the Global War on Terror." 

The colonel said he is proud of all who serve in the United States armed forces, especially those serving and training here. 

"If you look at how the 82nd Training Wing and 80th Flying Training Wing trained before 9/11 and now, you would see a huge shift toward training joint concepts," Colonel Pond said. "It is now a reality of the world we live in."