I stood in a field at Fort Benning, Georgia, Home of the Infantry, with a group of over a hundred U.S. Army Infantry Officers. We were weeks into our introductory course as new officers. I was 28 years old, an older officer coming from the enlisted ranks of the 1990s. That morning, September 11, 2001, we went from peace to war. As I looked around at the young faces, wondering if most, if not all of us, would be going to war. We answered the call in peace but ended in war.
So many answered the call, knowing they would go to war and may lose their life or limb to protect our Nation. These stories are just some of the over 2.5 million that served in the past two decades.
A Special Forces veteran, Zach Harrison, told me, “I was on my way to work on the morning of September 11. For some reason, I had a late work call and was driving in my car listening to a local radio station. A song played through the speakers when the D.J. cut in and announced that a passenger plane had just “crashed” into the World Trade Center. By the time I got to work, the 2nd tower had been struck, and it was clear that these were no accidents. I watched the towers collapse from a T.V. in our break room. From that moment on, I felt my life’s path would forever change its course.” Honoring his prior commitments, Zach delayed entering the service until 2003. Zach said, “I began to research what I wanted to do, weighing the differences between the SOF [Special Operations Forces] communities in the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps. Finally, I decided to become an Army Green Beret and found myself at a recruiting station. I learned of the 18X [Special Forces Candidate] contract, which I received. After that, I began my process of enlisting in the U.S. Army. I left for boot camp in October of 2003.” Zach went on to serve at the absolute tip of the spear of the U.S. Army, deploying globally in the fight against terror. Zach explained to me, “The events of 9/11 forever changed the trajectory of my adult life, as it did with tens of thousands of others. Had it not been for Usama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and the murder of 3,000 of our countrymen, I would’ve never joined the Military. Not a day goes by that I do not remember some part of that day. The lives that were tragically lost and the innumerable amount of lives that were forever changed by those attacks continue to be a driving force in my life.”
Twenty years ago, instant access to information wasn’t available, and television was the only outlet for breaking news. In seventh grade at the time of the 9/11 attacks, Robbie, currently serving in the U.S. Navy, relayed, “I remember watching the whole thing on the news that morning. I went to school, and it was just weird. Being near March Air Force Base, jets would periodically fly over [on 9/11], and our school officials would rush us indoors. I knew I was called to join when I was in history class that day. We had an old Vietnam vet Marine as a teacher who was talking to us about what happened. I was clenched fists and angry. Finally, an office aide came in with a slip from the principal, and it said teachers need to turn off the news and not talk about the attacks. He crumpled the paper up and said [expletive] that! Some of you will die in future wars because of what happened today! That stuck with me. I am now going on 15 years in the Navy.”
In 2001, Josh, an Air Force veteran, was sixteen years old and in math class when Al Qaeda attacked. Josh said, “I was 16, in Ms. Streiff’s Geometry class. Ms. Streiff was born and raised in New York. When another teacher rushed into class to tell her something had happened, she turned on the news, and we all watched, confused and in disbelief as the second plane hit. We also watched this strong woman be slowly tortured as she quite possibly just watched the murder of her brothers on Fox News. All of her family lived in New York still, and her brothers worked in Manhattan. That day a group of teens was hurriedly thrown into adulthood as we contemplated what this meant for us and our country. 9/11 was the catalyst that led me to become a Firefighter and Paramedic right out of high school and my enlistment in the Air Force at 24 as a paramedic. Let us never forget what happened that day and make sure generations come to understand what it means to be the center of freedom and liberty for the world. We’ll always be a target but should never cower from the scum that wishes to do us harm.”
Jonathan Ryall, a U.S. Army veteran, felt an intense calling to serve. Jonathan told me, “ I was a Junior in a small, pacifist Christian college in the fall of 2001. On one particular Tuesday morning, I had decided to sleep through the chapel, which was supposed to be mandatory, but I preferred my sleep. So I walked alone across campus. Something was wrong. There were no loud conversations, no goofing off. It was just quiet. I came across a friend and asked what was going on. He told me to just turn my T.V on. I switched on the T.V. just in time to see the second tower struck. My roommates and I watched T.V. for the rest of the day as our reality was altered forever. Later that evening, a group of friends wanted to gather for a prayer circle. I had never been fond of those activities, as they always mainly seemed self-serving. I went anyway. As I sat and listened to teary collegiates make themselves feel better, I came to a realization. Those kids wanted to feel like they were doing something but did not want to risk anything. I realized with more surety than I’ve ever had in my life that I wanted to actually do something. The next day I talked to my father and told him I was going to enlist. I did not know what to expect. He simply sighed and said, I figured you would. Twenty years later, a world-traveled, a war fought, severely injured, if I had the chance to go back in time to that day, I would not change a thing.” During Jonathan’s deployment to Afghanistan, a terrorist emplaced multiple Improvised Explosive Devices. As Jonathan defused one explosive, another detonated, grievously injuring him.
At that moment, when the towers fell, the Pentagon smoldered, and Flight 93 lay in pieces in a field in Pennsylvania; a section of society disregarded their pre-destined futures and became warriors. As many talked of duty and service, millions raised their hands and took an oath to serve and protect our Nation here or abroad.
Dr. Jason Piccolo worked in federal law enforcement for over 21 years and is a former U.S. Army Infantry Captain (Operation Iraqi Freedom). He hosts the podcast, The Protectors.