This is a column I wrote about a young man named Gabriel Paull. The column was published in March 2006 in the Tri-Valley Herald. Gabe is the soldier in the middle of this photo, and the casket you see is that of Ronald Reagan.
While most of us will never forget where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001, Gabriel Paull will never forget what he saw.
“I was stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, and I saw a plane coming in very low near Reagan National Airport,” said Paull, 26.
Looking away for just a moment, Paull heard the impact of the airplane as it plunged into the Pentagon just across the street from his base.
“When I looked back, the sky was thick with smoke as black as midnight.”
Within several hours, he and fellow soldiers were assembled in their riot gear on the grass at the Pentagon, preparing to search for human remains.
“I’ve seen mass grave sites in Bosnia,” said Paull, his eyes deepening, “but this was the worst experience ever.”
Particularly disturbing was seeing personal items on the desks of victims, such as a card that read “Number 1 Dad,” Paull said.
Of the 125 who died in the attack, Paull isn’t sure how many bodies his team recovered, but he is certain he’ll never forget several specific encounters: “I saw a woman’s handprint on a wall covered with soot. The print slid down to where we found her in a stairwell, dead from smoke inhalation.”
He also recalled a man found sitting at his desk who died from heart failure when the plane smashed into the building.
Fortunately for Paull, who lives in Manteca and works as a realtor for Keller Williams in Livermore, most military memories are not so gruesome.
“I had a friend who was a Marine who couldn’t add one plus one,” Paull said, “but could play the piano beautifully.”
Paull discovered the Marine’s talent when they served together in 2004 on the prestigious Joint Armed Services Casket Team that accompanied and carried the body of Ronald Reagan from California to Washington D.C. and back to Simi Valley for burial.
“We were staying at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley,” Paull said, “and I remember waking up to find my team member playing a piano that had been a gift to Reagan.”
The casket team—which consisted of two servicemen from the Army, two from the Marines, two from the Navy, one from the Air Force, and one from the Coast Guard—was led by Paull, who, as a sergeant, called cadence at the former president’s funeral.
“I was very proud to be part of history,” said Paull, who explained that Reagan’s death came when he and his team had succeeded in beating out 15 other teams to gain the assignment of participating in up to 36 funerals every day at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’d been watching the movie Conan the Barbarian,” Paull said, “and when I took out the DVD, the image on the television was Ronald Reagan and 1911 to 2004. I knew we’d be getting a call to fly to California.”
Paull’s interest in military service began in 1997 when as a senior at Manteca’s East Union High School he signed up to join the Army. “I’d been a rebel in high school, then two weeks after graduation I was at Fort Benning getting yelled at,” he said, smiling. “I grew up real quick.”
After basic training, Paull was stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York, 20 miles south of the Canadian border where night temperatures reached minus 61 degrees.
“Fifteen seconds of exposure meant frostbite,” said Paull, who said the soldiers kept warm by sleeping “three guys to a sleeping bag, and I was mad because I wasn’t the guy in the middle.”
After Fort Drum, Paull was sent to Bosnia in 1998 for six months. “We drove through a village whose houses had just been run over by tanks,” Paull said. “From our Humvee, I saw a lady kneeling, and then I saw a little hand from beneath rubble.”
Paull told the driver to stop and jumped from the Humvee, approaching the woman, though endangering himself and his fellow soldiers.
“A little boy was trapped under a collapsed cement wall,” said Paull, who pushed the wall back, injuring his back, but freeing the boy.
Some days later the boy’s mother, whom Paull had first seen kneeling, walked 20 miles to the base, hoping to meet the young soldier who had saved her son.
“She was searching through the crowd,” said Paull, who recognized the woman and stepped forward. “She thanked me over and over in her language and was crying, and gave me a ring and many kisses on the cheek.”
After Bosnia, Paull returned to the United States and took specialized courses to enhance his military skills, including air assault, close combat, and cold weather training where he got a mild case of frostbite on his toes and fingers.
Then came September 11, which led to classified assignments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, assignments Paull cannot speak about. “All I can say is that I was there,” he said.
Paull was honorably discharged in December 2004, opting to end his seven years of service to return home to care for his mother, who had become ill.
His first job back home was driving a forklift. After considering a position with the Department of Corrections, he settled on becoming a realtor.
Still, he misses serving his country, where at Dover Air Force Base he lifted and carried from cavernous C-130s the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq, and where in Washington D.C. he stood with aging veterans at the dedication of the World War II memorial, and where at Arlington he reverently buried those he calls “American heroes.”
Paull said his mother’s health is better, and that he still reads military manuals and goes to the gym every day. “In fact,” he said, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about going back in.”