9/11 Anniversary — The Soldiers' Perspective, From the Front Lines


When the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11 of 2001, Patrick Zingaro was in first grade — 7 years old. Maybe he was reading a picture book when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. Maybe he was learning how to add numbers when United Flight 175 flew into the south tower at 9:03 EST.

Today, he is a 19-year-old Marine, stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, strapping on his boots and deploying to Afghanistan this fall.

He has a tattoo of the Catholic Act of Contrition that takes up his entire side body. It reads, in part, “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart, in choosing to do wrong and failing to do good.” In a recent text message, he wrote, “I will not be satisfied until every one of [the terrorists] is dead … preferably by my hand.”  He is private, but matter-of-fact: “Some of the guys here are going to die in milliseconds.”

September 11 changed him, he says. But a Pew report writes that, “All of us know people who still bear the marks of their distinctive coming-of-age experiences: the grandmother raised during the Depression who reuses her tea bags; the child of the Cold War who favors an assertive national security policy; the uncle who grew up in the 1960s and sports a ponytail. We don’t yet know which formative experiences the millennials will carry forward throughout their life cycle.”

Why not September 11?

Perhaps because we millennials — aged about 18 to 34 today — were anywhere from starting kindergarten to embarking upon our first post-college jobs when the planes crashed into the towers.

Recollections vary drastically. To some, it was a defining moment in history and in personal memory — a dent in the American psyche. To others, it’s a blur, something that happened in the background; something they were too young to comprehend, and then something they didn’t learn about in school.

Further, despite that the fact that millennials are coming of age during two wars, relatively few of us — just 2% of males — are military veterans. At a comparable stage of their life cycle, 13% of Baby Boomer men, nearly double, were veterans. Partly due to population growth, post-Sept. 11 veterans make up a smaller fraction of the country than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations did.

And yet, our troops have been at war for 12 years now — the longest period of combat in our country’s history. Millennial veterans represent about 65% of those who served and deployed in the global war on terror. We’ve lost nearly 7,000 troops in total.

As Syracuse University’s J. Michael Haynie says in his piece, “September 11 may have united a nation; it may also have morally fractured a generation.” He explains, “Never before have we experienced such a stark intra-generational divide between those who served, and those who did not.” He laments that the divide grows deeper with every passing year, and adds that, “There is nothing more isolating, divisive, and even sinister than disconnecting the burden of war from the citizenry.”

So, today, PolicyMic will focus on September 11 through the eyes of the soldiers.

You will hear from a 35-year-old writer who was in college when the attacks occurred, blissfully drunk, high, and unaware that he would be in Afghanistan six years later. You’ll read a journalist reveal the the plan that the Navy had in place that day, something that in the last 12 years, he has only told few.

You’ll hear from a three-star 68-year-old Vietnam veteran who flew over 300 missions as a fighter pilot, and now builds schools for young girls in Afghanistan. He tells us about the F-16s that were ready to go that day, prepared to perform the longest and most difficult fighter aircraft combat missions in aviation history.

A young woman who was in her final year of ROTC recounts the early morning of September 11, the moments in which she understood that she was going to war, whether she wanted to or not. She wanted to, and she was one of 290,000 women deployed – more than the number of women who served in the military during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combined.    

You’ll read a piece from a 30-year-old widow whose husband joined the forces largely because of what happened on this date, 12 years ago. He took his own life this past June. In his suicide letter, he wrote that he felt “nothing short of torture,” and that he was “too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.” The letter was published and went viral. She wants him to be remembered for other things, too. Another military spouse writes that she does not want pity.

Finally, you’ll find out why millennial veterans are the next “greatest generation,” and about what you can do to support them.

These are our featured veterans’ pieces today with excerpts below from their thoughtful, analytical, deeply honest, and all-around fantastic articles.

Many thanks to these PolicyMic special contributors.

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1. John Ismay, 36

We Watched the Twin Towers Fall — Nobody Could Imagine What Came Next

We watched the first tower fall in complete silence. Matt and I looked back at our notes, not making eye contact, and resumed our briefing. None of us made any acknowledgement of what happened on television. We had a job to do here.

2. Lawrence Lee, 26

I Was 14 on 9/11, And a Marine in Afghanistan When We Killed Bin Laden

For the next few days, I imagined that the U.S. would be entering into its next large war. The prospect of going to war excited me. I had never been able to do anything without self-doubt. This idea of running full-tilt at or away from someone or something attracted me.

3. Amanda Burrill, 33

You'd Take One Look at Me and be Shocked that I spent 8 Years Trying to Kill Terrorists

I'm no war-mongerer, perferring peaceful solutions to conflict when at all possible, but on that day ... I wanted the responsible parties dead. These were incredibly strong emotions for a 21-year-old girl. I knew what I'd signed up for in accepting this scholarship. My mentality about war and deployment had always been, "If we are going, I want to go." Now I just wanted to go, as if I'd known so many people in the towers and this was my war. I took it personally. 

4. Adrian Bonenberger, 35

As a Soldier Who Lost 30 Friends in Afghanistan, Here's Why I Refuse to Forget 9/11

I learned to tell my interpreters that I needed to hear what the tribal elders were saying, not what the interpreters thought I might want to hear. That was my war. Trying to look out for my soldiers, and sergeants, and officers, barely able to take care of myself, or the Afghans, or any of it.

5. Dr. Mike Haynie, 43

9/11 United a Nation and Morally Fractured a Generation

I say this because never before have we experienced such a stark intra-generational divide between those who served, and those who did not. Only a small fraction of the 80 million millennials living in the U.S. served in uniform after Sept. 11. A consequence of this unequal burden sharing is illustrated by the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans indicate that Sept. 11, and the wars that followed, had little impact on their daily lives – at all. I’ve come to believe that there is nothing more isolating, divisive, and even sinister than disconnecting the burden of war from the citizenry.

6. Angel Somers, 30

A Widow of PTSD Suicide: "The Other Part to Remember"

After the death of my husband, I began to receive phone calls and messages from hundreds of people who knew him. They consistently called him a hero and praised his bravery, tenacity, talents and strengths. When I read articles that have been written about him after his death by people who did not know him, I see him painted as a victim who was overcome by the failures of the systems. The lives he saved and things he accomplished are pushed to the side or ignored all together.The system failed him, true, but there was so much more to Daniel that was lost and is not being seen or discussedWe work to fix the system in Daniel’s honor — not because of his death, but because of who he was in life.

7. Phil Carter, 37

It’s Our Moral Duty to Take Care of Our 9/11 Troops

I worry about what lies ahead for the post-Sept. 11 veterans generation.  With the war in Iraq over, and the war in Afghanistan fading, the nation may slowly turn its attention away from the 2.6 million men and women who served in combat since Sept. 11, towards other priorities at home and abroad. We cannot and should not turn our back on this generation. We have a moral obligation to care for those that we send into battle, and that obligation does not end when the wars do. Equally important, we will miss an enormous opportunity to leverage this generation if we ignore the expertise and experience they have earned through their service since Sept. 11.

8. Ltn. Gen. John Bradley, 68

A Vietnam Vet: I Am Extremely Proud of Our Fighter Pilots Who Have Helped Defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban

In mid-October, President George W. Bush made the decision to go to war in Afghanistan because of the Sept. 11 attacks. Because the Air Force Reserve F-16s were in-theater, they were sent on the first fighter combat missions of Operation Enduring Freedom. These were arguably some of the most difficult to fly fighter combat missions in history. Why is that? I’ll tell you.

9. Kate Kidder, 29

I Am a Military Spouse, But Do Not Feel Sorry For Me

I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by those who’ve answered the call — the ones who wear the uniform, and the ones they leave behind ... recognize that millennials, dedicated to service and sacrifice, are the future of U.S. military preeminence. The onus is on the Department of Defense and the services to provide the right incentives for retaining the highest performers. It’s a matter of national security.

10. Col. Dave Sutherland, 52

You Might Know What Our Military is, But You Don’t Know Who We Are and What We are Capable Of

Tom Brokaw called the generation of soldiers who fought in World War II 'the greatest generation any society has ever produced,' fighting for their country because it was 'the right thing to do.' He may feel differently today, as I do, in that there is a new 'greatest generation.'