It seems that every generation has its bookmarks. Moments that will never be forgotten. Events that evoke visceral reactions. For my Grandparents’ generation, it was the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy. For my parents, the moon landing and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. For my generation the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 stand head and shoulders above any other event.
Like our grandparent’s December 7th, our September 11th changed the course of many of our lives. It is remembered for immeasurable horror, fierce anger, boundless resolve, and incredible patriotism. Even as we watched the pentagon burn and the towers fall millions of Americans were itching to engage our enemies, wherever they were. Not that many actually did.
Where Were You? A Veteran’s Reflection of 9/11 and the Aftermath
For me, September 11th started out and nearly ended like any other day. A young Army Specialist at the time, I was just leaving my office in Mannheim Germany when an image of a smoking World Trade Center on the television caught my attention.
The headline said something like: Breaking News – Plane Crashes Into World Trade Center Tower.
My first thought was, “what an idiot, how does a pilot crash into the World Trade Center.”
When I arrived home just a few minutes later I turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit the north tower. For several minutes CNN made speculation there might have been a horrific navigational error. But, I knew immediately that the United States was being attacked by terrorists.
Defending My Base
Within a few hours, I was called back to work and told to report wearing my flak jacket and kevlar helmet. I remember being issued my assigned weapon – this was the first time I’d been given my weapon with a purpose other than training.
Our orders: if required, defend this base with violence.
In all hindsight, the chances that our base would be attacked were extremely low. Our superiors knew that, as did just about every soldier. The biggest threat to the soldiers in my unit was complacency and lack of training. We weren’t combat arms. We were signaleers, logisticians, mechanics, pac clerks.
Those in charge were genuinely concerned that a soldier might have a negligent discharge and harm himself or his buddy – or “lose” a few rounds of 5.56. I thought – this might be as close to combat operations as a soldier like myself would ever get.
I wouldn’t say I had a plan for my life; but, doing 20 years in the military was NOT it. I chose a job in the military that would give me a skill that I could build a civilian career from. I was happy to serve but didn’t take myself that seriously.
Afghanistan and How My Attitude Changed
In a short time, like many others, I watched with pride as my country and our allies brought the fight to the enemy in the mountains of Afghanistan. I remember watching the green grainy footage of the Rangers jumping out of planes to take an airfield. I saw the images of bearded Special Forces Soldiers on horseback riding with the Northern Alliance.
I was intrigued, and while I lacked a plan to this point, I knew my future plans would include doing my part to support the fight, somehow. Better make it quick though – this war probably won’t last long.
That day and the days that followed changed how I felt about service and changed the course of my life.
My 20 Year Military Career
As a young, healthy, American male, I considered it my duty to serve in this “good war”. I volunteered for Airborne School and was assigned to support the same unit I saw riding on horseback. When I joined my unit, they were just finishing their redeployment from Afghanistan and nearby countries. I thought it would only be a matter of time before we were sent back to Afghanistan, but instead, we began planning for the “liberation” of Iraq.
By the time I made it to Afghanistan, 12 years had passed and Osama Bin Laden was dead. I spent the time between doing my part; which meant deploying to Iraq and other countries in the Middle East a bunch of times.
I changed jobs.
I abandoned my future career in IT for the taste of dust, the sound of gunfire, and a Green Beret.
Though I hadn’t planned it, a 20 year career in the military was now likely.
I spent my time in Afghanistan at a headquarters in Kabul but did get to travel around the country frequently.
In Kabul, I saw a city not unlike Baghdad or other cities I’d visited in Iraq. People were doing what they could to put food on the table. Women cloaked from head to toe in blue burqas, not even their eyes left uncovered, sat in the middle of the street or busy intersections and begged for money. Kids played soccer in the street or wherever they could. Once I stopped my truck and bought ice cream for everyone in our small convoy from a small boy.
When I left Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but wonder how long that conflict would rage. I remember thinking about how ingenious the enemy was at making IEDs – some without any metal whatsoever. I remember wondering where that nation would be if it had concentrated its efforts on infrastructure and not killing foreigners or local sympathizers.
I wondered what life would be like for that young ice-cream vendor. I remember the sinking feeling that it was more likely that the conflict would go on forever than we would be able to claim victory in Afghanistan. I had no confidence then that the GIRoA would be able to run the country. I don’t think I expected that they would hand it over to the Taliban.
The United States Leaving Afghanistan
It’s been about 8 years since I left Afghanistan and 3 since I left the military. The career that 9/11 catapulted me toward is over and I am happily a retired veteran of the United States Army.
Last month, under extreme duress, the United States left Afghanistan. Before we could get our last military members out, the Taliban took power. Not at all how I expected that war to end. Not at all satisfying. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the images of Afghans chasing a C-17 down a tarmac. I won’t soon forget the feeling that some Taliban guy is probably sitting in my old office at this very moment.
I wonder how old he was on September 11, 2001?
I wonder if he could pick out New York on a map or read his own name on his identification papers.
How long will he serve the Taliban?
The scars of 9/11 still remain and some of the battles, perhaps remnants or unintended consequences of 9/11, still rage; and may for many more years.
In doing this reflection, it is hard not to see how the inkblot approach took us further and further away from the events of 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 gave us justification to send forces to Afghanistan. The quick success emboldened us to seek other threats and led us to Iraq. The instability we incited in the region helped provoke new threats and would lead us to open up new fronts, like Syria, and to reopen fronts thought closed, like Iraq.
All along the way in this Global War on Terror, our troops volunteered, sacrificed, and served with distinction, and often died in service to our nation. I had the great privilege to serve with these men and women and have mourned too many.
This generation, who was raised on Saved by the Bell and fast food, went where we were told and executed the mission. Tactically, this generation of warriors dominated the enemy on every front. Yes, there were setbacks. There were lessons learned through blood and tiny bits of flesh and bone, but it can be said that this generation dominated the battlefield.
Unfortunately, tactical victories don’t always equal strategic success. This too, we’ve learned this the hard way. It’s not easy to watch the Taliban walk into Kabul with impunity. It hurts to learn of vehicle-borne IEDs turning humanity into pink mists within a stone’s throw of where you once stood watch. These defeats of a strategic nature are not ours my brothers and sisters.
As we reflect on the events of 9/11 and the last 20 years we, those of us who had boots on the ground, should remember that we did our best. I don’t know if America is a safer place now than it was then. I do know that another 9/11 has not occurred – perhaps that is our legacy.