The story behind the Vietnam vet who saved thousands of lives on 9/11

Connecting Vets
November 11, 2019 - 9:59 am
President Donald J. Trump looks on as Susan Rescorla shows the Presidential Citizens Medal, posthumously awarded to her husband Richard “Rick” C. Rescorla, to her son Trevor Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

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By JIM MORRIS

On the 7th of November, at about 6:35 in the evening Susan Rescorla accepted the posthumous presentation of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal on behalf of her late husband, Col. Cyril Richard Rescorla, USAR (Ret.)

On the face of it this would seem to be a no-brainer. On 9/11/01 Rick saved the lives of around 2,700 people. If not for the actions of this one man the casualty figures on that day would have been double. But it was an eighteen year struggle to get him recognition for this act from his government.  One must presume that the Bush administration, which had pushed the idea that no one could have predicted the assault on the World Trade Center was not eager to draw attention to the man who had. Maybe the Obama administration thought the moment had passed. No one really knows. But the current administration chose to reward the action, and they deserve props for that.

An early supporter of the award was Gen. Richard Myers, USAF, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who pressed for the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to no effect. His action officer for this effort was LTC Randy Lee, USA, now retired. A lot of people worked on this, including this writer, with magazine articles.

RESCORLA’S LIFE

That Rick did what he did on 9/11 was no surprise to anyone who knew him well. For one thing he was a notable hero of the Ia Drang campaign, and it is his picture on the cover of LTG Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s brilliant We Were Soldiers Once … and Young. Gen. Moore inscribed Rick’s copy, “to Rick Rescorla, the best platoon leader I have known in two wars.” Rick came by his leadership skills the hard way. Born in Cornwall he was a veteran of arguably the best Special Operations unit in the world, the 22d Special Air Services Regiment of the British army, where he served in Cyprus. That was followed by a brief stint as a London bobby, which he described as “the most boring job I ever had.”

Looking for a more exciting lifestyle he joined the police in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, where, among other things he was a football (soccer) star, and lion killer. A village was preyed on by a man-eating lion. Rick went there, built a blind and staked out a goat. The lion went for the goat, at which point Rick stepped from the blind. The lion leapt at him and he picked it off in mid-air. He had one of the lion’s claws made into a necklace, which he wore until he gave it to Dan Hill when he went to Afghanistan in the 80’ to join the muj.

They had an intense friendship. Dan had left the US Army at the behest of some gentlemen from Virginia, who wanted him to join the rebel army in Katanga and keep them apprised of developments there. They had envisioned a lower profile than he adopted, quickly becoming a lieutenant of mercenaries and winning the first major battle of that war by dropping a bridge with a battalion of advancing Congolese on it.

The mercenaries were quickly disaffected when the rebel government paid them in Congolese francs instead of the agreed upon French francs. They resolved this situation by knocking over all the banks in Lubumbashi and heading for South Africa. Dan headed for Northern Rhodesia, where he became Rick’s best friend.

Northern Rhodesia was becoming Tanzania and Rick wanted back in an army, a good one. He considered Australia, Canada and the United States. He was ambitious and in England the class system was an obstacle. Dan convinced him that the US had the best airborne, paid the best, and had a war. They came here and enlisted, then applied for OCS. As a foreigner it took Rick a bit longer to get a security clearance, so Dan was a class ahead of him, and yelled at Rick a lot as a senior candidate. He also occasionally ran him down the road to a picnic basket of good food and cold beer, then ran him back, yelling vile imprecations.

Rick won a Silver Star in the Ia Drang. Dan was in Vietnam at the same time, in the 101st. After Ia Drang Rick formed a recon platoon for then COL Moore, now a brigade commander. Dan took an R&R to walk point for Rick’s platoon. There are enough great stories from this period to fill a book, but overwhelm an article.

Realizing that the US didn’t intend to win in Vietnam, Rick got out. He considered a career as a writer and joined the writing program at the University of Oklahoma, which is where I met him. We formed a good friendship. My first wife introduced him to his first wife. We belonged to a coffee drinking group in the Hester Roberts cafeteria at OU. Everybody in the group was at least two of three things, a writing student, a veteran, and a gimp.

Realizing that the writer’s life was not for him Rick got a law degree, wrote a book on criminal justice and started working corporate security, which led to his being Senior Vice President for Corporate Security at Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center.

Before that he was chief of security for a chain of banks headquartered in Chicago, and also a colonel in the army reserves. He commanded a brigade of armored infantry. He could have been a reserve general, but when he got to New York he interviewed with a general of the New York National Guard. Something in the non-combat general’s questions didn’t set quite right with him. He said, “General, frankly I don’t think you have the experience to evaluate my performance,” and retired.

He’d studied terrorism and when the terrorists made their first run at the WTC in 1993, he knew they’d be back. Dan Hill had converted to Islam. At Rick’s urging he grew a beard, adopted Islamic dress and cruised mosques in the New York, New Jersey area. They decided that the next attack would come by air. All they lacked was the date.

If the attack had come two weeks later, Rick would have been at Susan’s daughter’s wedding in Ireland. But on September 11 he was at his desk at 7:30 that morning. When the North Tower came down the WTC staff announced that everyone should stay at their desks. Rick ordered the Morgan Stanley staff to go downstairs and leave the building. Then he called Susan and said, “IF something happens to me, I want you to know that you have made my life.” Then he grabbed a bullhorn and shepherded the Morgan Stanley people down the stairs, singing Cornish songs, telling them “This is a great day to be an American.”

When the building came down he was going upstairs, looking for stragglers. Morgan Stanley lost six people that day. Two of them were Rick and his assistant.

At the presentation I sat with Randy Lee, who had run the effort to get the PMOF for Rick at Gen. Myers behest, and at the following banquet I sat beside Tony Nadal, who had been a company commander at the Ia Drang. The Fire Department of New York sent a delegation, and the room was packed with guys who had fought with him in the Ia Drang, and with OCS classmates. There were cheers and there were tears.

At first I was incensed that Rick was not given the PMOF, but the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, deemed a lesser award. Randy convinced me that I was wrong. The PMOF is usually given to celebrities, the PCM for acts of courage. One may presume that a government mostly run by people who think they are too good to fight for it might value celebrity over courage, but, of course, that is ridiculous. The President Citizen’s Medal is the right award for Rick Rescorla.

 Jim Morris served three tours with Special Forces (The Green Berets) in Vietnam. He is an author, documentary maker and commentator on Special Operations.