Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Christopher Hartley is a member of the New York Army National Guard. After serving at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, Hartley was stationed in Iraq, where he maintained the controversial blog Just Another Soldier until he was forced to stop by his commander. He is the creator of "Surrender," a play based on his wartime experiences, as well as the author of the book "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq."
Question: What made you join the National Guard?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I grew up in suburbia: Salt Lake City, Utah for the most part, just right outside of Salt Lake. I’m the oldest of six. Kind of a very typical Mormon upbringing; very wholesome, going to a loud church, and I joined the Army when I was 17. They have a program that allows you to join like the reserves, either the National Guard or the reserves, while you’re still in high school, go to boot camp, come back, finish your senior year, and then go back in training and finish all your advanced training. So that’s what I did right after I turned 17 in January, and I had enlisted by February. I enlisted the day after the ground war for the first Gulf War started. And what I’ve always told people why I joined, which is the most honest answer I can give you to why I joined, is that I was 17 and that’s it. It was the first adult decision that I got to make. I grew up playing GI Joe and stuff like that, so it’s like a fun thing. I’m like, "Hey. I can kind of be a Boy Scout." Or a kid perpetually and it appealed to me, so I joined.
Question: What was it like guarding the Twin Towers on 9/11?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Wow, kind of haven’t talked about this one in a while. OK, I’m from Utah. Nothing happens in Utah. I moved to New York City in 2000. The towers come down in September 2001. Of course my initial reaction is one of complete disbelief. I mean you know they say how sometimes you can look right at something and not believe it. Well that was the first time I ever really experienced that, where I get a phone call. My buddy says, “Hey, the towers have been hit.” I’m like, “Shut up, asshole. Don’t call me before noon ever again, and don’t tell me ridiculous crap like that, come on.”
Then I realized he was not kidding. You know, watching the news. Walk out to West Broadway. By the time I walked out to West Broadway the first tower had already fell and I’m looking right at where it was and I’m not seeing it and I’m just like where is the tower, I don’t get it, what happened? I’m looking right at the sky and I couldn’t and I didn’t… I could not process that the tower wasn’t there. I walk away to try and watch some news and I’m like maybe I should just watch. I go back a second time. Now the second tower has fallen, so and it’s probably been said a billion, zillion times, the feeling of complete disbelief. We were… I figured pretty much any National Guardsman in New York City at that time knew they were going to get called up, so we just all, without being told, started like congregating out our respective armories and we were at Ground Zero or near Ground Zero that night.
The first two days we guarded an area a few blocks away, you know, from the site and then by the third day… the third to the eleventh day, so I guess it was like the twenty-second, we just did what we do as soldiers, which is guard stuff. We worked 12-hour shifts. My platoon in particular was stationed between buildings four and five and all we did was guard. We set up a perimeter around a big hole and our job was to simply screen who came into the hole. The fire chief was in charge of the site and he would tell, OK, here we’re going to only let iron workers in, only let in EMS workers with dogs, and that‘s what we did. We just kind of stood there, guarded stuff, and told people who didn’t have the correct authorization from the fire chief to fuck off, which was actually kind of interesting because anyone who has a suit or a badge or anything was down there to include FBI, CIA, NSA guys, like you know, everyone showed up. There was firefighters came from Minnesota wanting to help that we had to turn away, which was kind of heartbreaking and that was our job was just to kind of guard a big hole.
Question: Did you witness any looting?
Jason Christopher Hartley: There was some kind of unscrupulous stuff that I think a lot people don’t love talking about, and looting was a bit of that and it’s hard to think about because that’s not… When we think about Ground Zero and 9/11 and all the incredibly heroic things that took place that day, and the amount of the outpouring of basically just love that came from the people who in the -- I mean we have just kids from the Lower East Side running around with like doughnut carts, giving us doughnuts just because they want to, and there’s all these wonderful stories, but then there’s also the stories too of like there was a soldier in my… You know, one of the soldiers had found like a box of money and he didn’t think that… didn’t even cross his mind that it was wrong to loot it. He ended up getting kicked out of the Army for just being an idiot. There were some… I know there were some problems, too, with people who are in positions of trust who were taking advantage of the fact that a lot of like the stores, especially the basement of the World Trade Center, were now broken and unguarded, and I think that’s really kind of a sore spot for a lot of people. I don’t know a whole lot of details, so I’m being kind of careful about what I say about it, but there were some problems with that and I… It was handled and hopefully that is kind of the end of it.