Cadet receives medal for heroism

Towson resident aided bombing victims

May 09, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

After six weeks as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya last summer, U.S. Military Academy cadet Alison M. Jones of Towson reluctantly cleaned out her desk and said goodbye to her embassy friends. She had walked just two blocks when a blast nearly knocked her over.

A bomb had detonated August 7, crumbling the embassy in Nairobi and killing 213 people. As thousands, screaming in panic, ran from the building, Jones' first thought was, "I have to get back in there to help."

She did.

In the hours after the blast, Jones rescued people buried in debris, helped recover bodies, and, with no prompting, roped off the building to keep others safe. She was so effective, top Army officials have recognized her.

Yesterday, in a ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., she received the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest honor for peacetime heroism. Jones, who graduates May 28, is one of a handful of cadets and the first female cadet to get the award.

"I'm proud of her," said her father, Robert S. Jones, a retired Baltimore firefighter. "She was always a go-getter. She took on things."

"Her response didn't surprise me at all," said Maj. Kimberly C. Field, Jones' teacher and mentor who coordinates international assignments for cadets. "I would have been surprised if she did anything else. She is fearless and compassionate, and she can think quickly."

In Nairobi last summer, Jones demonstrated just that.

The 21-year-old cadet pulled a man from the rubble, crafted a splint for his crushed leg from a ceiling beam and dragged him to safety.

She checked for pulses among dozens of victims, some her friends and co-workers. She took charge of cordoning off the embassy and set up a relief station for donated food and blankets.

All this while the building, filled with toxic smoke, was in danger of collapsing or exploding. Fires burned near fuel storage tanks, and electrical wires were exposed everywhere.

Jones made it home unscathed. She says she is honored by the award but was surprised she was singled out.

"We were trained to do stuff like that, so I just did the right thing at the right time," she said in an interview Friday. "You don't feel like you did anything special because everyone around you is giving all they can, so you just give all you can."

It is unusual for a young soldier to demonstrate such leadership, Army officials said Friday.

When Scott Bernetti, a spokesman for the Department of the Army in Virginia, heard of Jones' award, he was surprised. "She was a cadet? Oh, wow. Wow!"

In 1991, a cadet received the award after saving people from a burning building in Philadelphia.

Jones, who grew up in Ridgeleigh with her mother, Jacqueline Jones, and two siblings, graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1995. She is the only Army soldier honored in the Nairobi incident. In January, Marine Sgt. Daniel Briehl, 28, of Lorain, Ohio, was awarded the Purple Heart and the Marine Corps' highest peacetime medal for heroism for saving lives there.

The bombing, and a similar one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 11, sparked a massive government investigation that resulted in the November indictment by a federal grand jury of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile accused of masterminding and bankrolling the bombings.

Those who have worked with Jones at West Point say she stands out among her classmates not only because she is a woman (the academy is about 85 percent male) but also because Jones is decidedly liberal. She is a strict vegetarian and intends to do international aid work after her five years of military service, which starts in the fall with a police assignment in Germany.

She has been consistently ranked among the top three athletes in her class of 800 cadets, competing in triathlons and varsity crew, lacrosse and diving.

"She is a phenomenal athlete," said Maj. Eric G. Kail, who taught her tactical training. "Isn't she awesome?"

Kail said West Point cadets are repeatedly drilled to be "warriors in the general sense, to be leaders of character." He added, "We know that for every person who gets [the Soldier's Medal] there are four or five others who also deserved it."

Asked if she hesitated while in the destroyed embassy building, Jones said, "In the moment you don't think about [the danger and emotion], but afterward you do."

At one point she did take note of the horror that surrounded her.

"I was searching for a friend who worked in the defense attache office -- he was still missing -- and I was looking through the rubble, screaming his name," she says. "I saw him half-in and half-out of the rubble, up to his chest."

She felt his pulse and realized with a pang that he had likely been killed instantly.

"Then," she said, "I was like, `OK, there's more to do. What's next?' "

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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