Father Frank O’Grady, a U.S. Army chaplain at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was awarded a medal of heroism for his work following the September 11 attack on the Pentagon.
Fr. O’Grady, who hales from Gurteen, County Sligo, was presented with the Army Commendation Medal for “exceptional meritorious service.” He was cited for leadership, dedication to duty and calm professional demeanor during a time of extreme crisis.
O’Grady joined the Army in 1994. He brought “great credit” to the garrison at Fort Belvoir, the military district of Washington and the United States Army, said the award. O’Grady, who came from Ireland to the diocese of Paterson, New Jersey in 1978, was at a conference in the nation’s capital on September 11. Attending the annual priests’ conference in the national basilica in Washington, O’Grady and the other priests were told of the attack at 10:15. Soon afterwards, he and a priest from Italy were on their way across the Potomac River to the scene.
“The whole building was on fire, there were firefighters all over the place trying to put out the flames,” O’Grady told Irish America. “It was a process, first the engineers had to ensure that the building was safe, then the fire service had to ensure the fire was doused, then the doctors went in to determine the casualties, then we went in.”
O’Grady spent numerous days and countless hours at the Pentagon following the attack and afterwards with the survivors and families of the victims. Part of his duties amid the devastation was honoring the dead by escorting remains out of the Pentagon. Unfortunately, O’Grady says he did not encounter any survivors from the interior of the building. His participation on next-of-kin notification teams lasted long after the initial rescue and recovery operation. “We did a lot of work with the families. It was not possible to notify families that their loved ones were dead even though they may have been confirmed missing, until DNA testing was complete. That could take up to seven weeks,” he said from his base in Virginia.
O’Grady spent five nights at the Pentagon. It was two days after the attack when it was safe for people to go into the ruined building. Assigned to the 12-hour night shift, O’Grady was asked to help with the remains. “They asked me to take care of the mortuary section of the operation. There were four groups of soldiers, of about ten soldiers each, who were bringing out remains from the mortuary.” As the soldiers emerged, they lowered the stretchers they were carrying to allow O’Grady and a Protestant minister to pray over the remains. “It was devastating,” he said.
O’Grady had done tours of duty in Honduras, Germany and Korea and this summer will take up a new tour of duty at the Walter Reade Army Medical Center in Washington.
The Army Commendation Medal is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States, other than General Officers, who distinguish themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service. ♦