How The Worst Terror Attack In US History Affected One Veteran


“Where were you on 9/11?” is the “Where were you when…” question of our generation. For my grandparents and parents it was “Where were you when JFK was shot,” and “when we walked on the moon” and “when the Berlin wall fell.”

Recently, I started thinking about where I’ve been on the past 13 anniversaries of this historic day. I doubt anything about those days would have been the same if the attacks hadn’t occured.

Here’s what I found when I took inventory of my own personal 9/11 history:

9/11/2001: I am 17, and knee-deep in the process of applying to West Point. My art history teacher postpones the lesson while we watch the twin towers fall over and over again on the screen of an old Magnavox TV mounted in the front corner of his classroom in a big public high school in Illinois. This same teacher (my favorite teacher) looks disappointed when I ask him to please provide a recommendation for my West Point application packet. “Why would you want to waste your potential in the military?” he asks. A fair question, coming from a Vietnam-era pacifist. I tell him, “Because I want to be a leader.”

9/11/2002: It’s my first year at West Point, and I don’t keep a journal because I’m too busy flailing and barely keeping my head above water. I’m learning for the first time what it feels like to be the slowest person in a run and the dumbest person in the classroom. I’m also learning how to fight in a conflict that looks more like Vietnam than Afghanistan. The military’s counterinsurgency strategy has not yet been developed, and we're still training for a conventional war.

9/11/2003: During the moment of silence in the mess hall for those who perished in the 9/11 attacks two years ago, I start to realize that this war will probably not be over before we graduate. I feel simultaneously proud that I'll be a part of it, and terrified I’ll “kill my platoon,” (which I’ve been told by the upperclassmen that I will certainly do, every time I make a mistake). Two of those upperclassmen at my table will die in Iraq within the next five years.

9/11/2004: It’s the start of junior year, and if we quit West Point now (or fail out for lack of trying), we owe Uncle Sam $250K for our education. On my way to attend my first class of the year --- which will seal my commitment to this deal --- I throw up in the latrine.

9/11/2005: One day during this last year at West Point, my professor realizes very few cadets in class have done the assigned reading, and he kicks us all out of class, saying, “Right now, this is your duty, to do your work. You are wasting taxpayers’ dollars if you’re not doing your job, and doing your best at it.” I’d never thought about homework in that way before. I feel ashamed.

9/11/2006: Four months into my military career, I’m faced with the choice to go either to an ordnance company headed to Afghanistan or a transportation company headed to Iraq. I choose Afghanistan because, secretly, I don’t really buy into the strategy in Iraq even though I know I’m not supposed to have an opinion about that.

9/11/2007: I’m a little over halfway through my first 15-month tour in Afghanistan. By now, my dreams all take place here in theater rather than at home. The worst duty I’m assigned during this tour is to go through a dead soldier’s stuff, inventory it, catalog it, dispose of his charred, bloody gear and uniform, as well as his porn stash so his mother won't see it, and ship it home.

9/11/2008: It still feels weird to be home after four months. One of the best, most upbeat soldiers in my platoon kills himself, and at his memorial service, I can only think about how he taught me my first three guitar chords during down time in Afghanistan.

9/11/2009: I’m halfway through my second tour in Afghanistan. I’m a captain, and coordinating the logistics on a provincial reconstruction team in Ghazni province. I feel much more comfortable in Afghanistan than I do stateside, which worries me. I decide to get out when my five-year commitment is up, so I can have a life.

9/11/2010: I'm working in operations, stateside. One of my non-commissioned officers pulls me aside one day to tell me he thinks I “have an anger problem.” This makes me angry. Because I know he’s right, I seek out a counselor through the military’s confidential hotline. I attend only one counseling session, blowing off my follow-up appointments. I drink way too much at least three nights a week.

9/11/2011: I’m out, and have a job teaching sophomore and senior English at a private high school. When a smart-ass senior asks one day whether I’d ever killed anyone, “like, with your bare hands,” I tell him no, and not to ask that question because it’s ignorant and rude and he should stop playing “Call of Duty.” I still have an anger problem, which makes me an impatient and extremely flawed first-year teacher.

9/11/2012: I can’t stomach the news on television because as the elections draw close, everyone is using 9/11 remembrance and the war as backdrops for their political campaigns. I’m now working as head of operations at a literacy nonprofit that works with low-income youth in my city. I’m trying to find a way to make some small part of the world better.

9/11/2013: I’ve reconnected with one of the interpreters I worked with in Afghanistan -- the only female interpreter I met -- on Facebook. I’m glad to hear she’s finally made it out of there. She’s in Europe because the process of getting a U.S. visa was so backed up and impossibly bureaucratic. She is waiting for the arrival of her two young girls, who are staying with her sister and will be sent from Kabul in the spring. It feels so good to know she is safe.

9/11/2014: In the wake of the recent beheadings and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s dominance in Iraq, and while efforts in Afghanistan have proven ineffective, I think this year is the saddest 9/11 since the day of the attacks. I am proud of my service, but disillusioned and cynical about the Global War On Terror. I’m married now, an Army wife, and pregnant. I worry about the world that is being created for my kid. I wonder whether their generation will have their own version of 9/11, and what, if anything, we might have done to prevent it.

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Sperduto

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