Twin Towers steel comes to Parris Island

September 24, 2011 

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The last time Justin Gaertner stood on the yellow footprints at Parris Island, his shoes were not attached to metal legs.

He was a young buck only days out of high school when he stepped off a bus, was ordered to the painted footprints and told: "You are now aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, and you have just taken the first step toward becoming a member of the world's finest fighting force, the United States Marine Corps."

On Sept. 17, Cpl. Justin Gaertner returned to the place where his life marched off in a new direction.

This time he wasn't with a group of scared teenagers. He was with retired firefighters from New York City and Raleigh, N.C. They came to Parris Island to deliver a piece of steel from the World Trade Center destroyed in New York City by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

New recruits helped carry the four-foot-long piece of a steel girder weighing 300 to 400 pounds to the door of the Parris Island Museum.

The firefighters who lost 343 colleagues on Sept. 11 hope the steel will take on a new life there, helping assure that no one ever forgets that day.

They feel that firefighters were the first to respond to the terrorism, and military troops like Gaertner took up the fight from there.

The piece of steel was handed over to the museum during the Lt. Dan Weekend held in Beaufort to honor and support wounded warriors. The weekend was headlined by actor Gary Sinise, who played the role of a paraplegic Vietnam veteran in the 1994 movie filmed in Beaufort, "Forrest Gump."

Gaertner lost his lower legs in Afghanistan. It was on the day after Thanksgiving last year. His family back home in Florida thought they may see him that day on television during a live shot of troops watching holiday weekend football games. But Gaertner was working with a unit sweeping mines. When a roadside bomb exploded, he was one of two Marines to lose his legs. Another Marine lost his life.

Gaertner was on his third deployment since stepping into the legendary yellow footprints of boot camp in 2007. He was months away from his scheduled release. When he finally got home this May, the streets were lined with well-wishers.

Danny Prince is one of the retired Fire Department of New York firefighters who came to Beaufort with the steel. He now spends a lot of time visiting troops like Gaertner in military hospitals.

That's why he was attracted to the Lt. Dan Weekend, and why he brought Engine 343, which honors firefighters killed on Sept. 11, to ride in the Beaufort Tricentennial Parade.

Since the day those firefighters died responding at the World Trade Center, more than a quarter million Marines have been deployed to the Middle East.

Among them are many former Parris Island recruits, and Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, the commanding general at Parris Island who once commanded Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.

Parris Island Museum director Stephen Wise said the steel beam will be the lead piece in a new display on the Marine Corps in Afghanistan that is now being assembled. The steel is already on display, and Wise said people seem naturally attracted to it.

The museum is in the process of documenting exactly where the piece of steel came from and how it got to the museum. "I don't know all the details yet," Wise said. "But we're very glad to have it."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has dispensed more than 1,000 pieces of steel from the World Trade Center to memorials in all 50 states and several foreign nations.

Gaertner said it was a weird feeling to sit on the yellow footprints where he took his first step toward seeing that a Sept. 11 never happens again.

He's been through a lot since then. His shoes are now attached to metal legs, but he doesn't complain. In fact, he's been sky-diving and water-skiing. He's a non-commissioned officer. He says he's now a man.

The young officer said it felt good watching new recruits take that piece of steel from firefighters, a tear or two in their eyes.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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