For many who spent time in uniform on 9/11/01, life is very much a story of before and after. I listened to the broadcast of the attacks on BBC radio while on an Army field exercise in Graefenwoehr, Germany. Much was different for soldiers before that day and much has changed since then.
Before, we trained with deployments to places like Bosnia or Kosovo in mind, not Afghanistan or Iraq. We wore Cold War-era equipment and woodland camouflage uniforms and slept in tents in the woods or in soft-sided military vehicles. Being stationed in Germany, we were all more practiced at fighting a Warsaw Pact enemy in the snow, mud, and rain of Europe than the urban or desert terrain of the Middle East. The Army life was generally as routine as military life can be. You get a new assignment and pack your bags for someplace new about every two years.
As we listened to the towers fall, still hoping it was some kind of an accident, we didn’t know how much things were about to change. Our exercise was cut short and we loaded into our vehicles and headed back to our post the next morning. An image I will always remember from that convoy is of Germans driving past waving small American flags out of the windows of their cars and shouting slogans of support. If any country knows what good the U.S. military has done in the world, it is Germany. Fifty six years before, America and its allies had rolled over the Nazis and then spent the next several decades rebuilding our former enemy under the Marshall Plan. U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany have been supporting the economy and our NATO ally since 1945. It may have been a rocky relationship since 2003, but I’ll always remember the faces of those German men and women waving the flag in support of America, in support of a country not their own and to people they would never meet.
Less than two years later our convoy was greeted again with waves from smiling citizens, but this time we were rolling into Baghdad. The results of ‘shock and awe’ were still very apparent. The people there were glad to see us at first. They all said thanks and then asked when we were leaving. Over the coming months we would all come to learn much about Iraq, Islam, Baathists, IEDs, snipers, and ambushes on city streets. The learning curve was steep. As we rolled back down to Kuwait on the way home 15 months of combat later, we did so with 10 of our brothers dead and four times as many, including myself, wounded in action.
One image that is forever burned into my memory is of two kids in an alley way near the bank of the Tigris. As I pulled security at the end of the alley, they snuck up on a mangy stray dog asleep in the sunshine, one of them holding a cup of gasoline and the other a lit piece of newspaper. They threw it on the dog and laughed as it cried and burned and died. Kids play with dogs; they don’t kill them. The things you want to remember, you forget; the things you’d like to forget, you always remember. Some people would call American soldiers savages, but there are worse things in this world.
We went home for a year and came back again. This time we flew in and slept in air-conditioned trailers and had showers and Burger King. But the streets outside were still the same, if not worse. I was assigned to a small team embedded with an Iraqi army unit we were to train and support. As the sectarian war raged, I remember getting a call from the U.S. battalion paired with our unit. They had found six bodies and five heads and needed us to come out. That wasn’t the first time I took a call like that or the last.
Three days before we all flew home, on the last mission he was to go on, we lost a platoon mate. The mixture of sorrow and joy left you feeling almost drunk. We sat around in the gravel, numb under our ponchos in the rain, and smoked and talked about what we were going to do when we got home. At that point, I was supposed to have been out the Army for three months already, but they had ‘stop-lossed’ me. They let me go three months later and I decided to make a clean break of it. I went to college on the GI Bill. I finished my degree in 2010. I’m starting grad school next week.
9/11 changed a lot in my life and in a lot of other lives. Everyone that went to war knows someone that didn’t make it back. A lot of veterans left a piece of themselves there. A lot of young men and women saw more than most others will see in a lifetime. Many soldiers came home to empty houses or drank themselves to sleep at night or worse. Families split up. Kids have grown up without a parent. People politely thank me for my service and I politely thank them back, but talking about the wars makes people back home uncomfortable. Usually I don’t offer up that I’m a veteran, but most know by looking at me.
Everything is different after 9/11. If you told me I could throw a magic switch and take back 9/11 and stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would do it in a heartbeat. No question. But if you said that I could only take back my own part in the fighting, I wouldn’t do it. It was the most terrible time in my life, but it was also the best time of my life. It made me who I am. I know that is hard to understand for most people. I have trouble understanding it myself. But there it is. 9/11 changed everything for our soldiers.