The closest I’ve ever come to being in combat was the day I sat in the Marine recruiter’s office almost three years after the Twin Towers fell. It was late July, and I was itching to do something that felt important. We were at war, and when our country was at war, the men in my family had always done their part.
I was a freshman in high school on September 11, 2001, and I watched United Airlines Flight 175 slam into the south face of the South Tower on what I remember to be live television. I was sitting in Mr. Santy’s homeroom before first period, watching Good Morning America, and I remember Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer announcing that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We flipped to CNN. They were speculating about what could have caused such an accident. Then it happened. The second plane hit.
We sat there in stunned disbelief. But the bell rang, and life pressed us to move on, so we stumbled into the hallway and made our way to class. The halls buzzed with talk of what had happened. One student in our grade said his dad was in New York on business and was supposed to have had a meeting at the World Trade Center. That turned out to be bullshit. None of us knew anyone in New York City, or D.C. for that matter. We were as insulated in our small town as anyone could have been.
Over the next couple days, we learned that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. We watched President George W. Bush shout through a megaphone to a mass of first responders that the people who knocked down the Towers would be hearing from us soon. I watched Bruce Springsteen sing about his “city of ruins,” and I bought a wristband with the name of someone who had been killed that day. I wish I still had it. I can’t remember the name.
Then life went on. I played football and wrote term papers. Basketball season started. Then baseball. As a nation, we were at war, but it didn’t feel like it to me. I didn’t know anyone who was serving, let alone someone who had been deployed overseas. I remember after Christmas hearing that we had won the war in Afghanistan.
Then we started hearing about Iraq. It was in the news for months, but I don’t remember talking about it at school or around the dinner table. The clearest thing I do remember was how confident the President seemed, like he knew something vital he couldn’t tell us. We know now, of course, that his confidence was masking the known unknown. To my teenage brain, the world was black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The President’s logic appealed to that worldview. But my prefrontal cortex wasn’t fully developed; I couldn’t process consequences. That’s my excuse.
When we eventually invaded, in March 2003, I was in Madison, Wisconsin for the annual high school boys state basketball championship tournament. The university there had a long and infamous past when it came to protesting involvement in ill-advised wars, and the day after the invasion began, a mass of protesters assembled outside the state capitol building, not far from where the basketball tournament was taking place. In between games, my father and I walked down there to watch what was happening. For such a historic moment, it left me wanting. The protesters seemed disorganized. They carried colorful and creatively worded signs, but they had no story to combat the President’s version of things. It was hard to take them seriously. They looked like hippies out of my history textbook and seemed almost deluded by their ideals of peace. Didn’t they know there were people out there who wanted to kill us?
Looking back, my father says he didn’t support the invasion. I don’t dispute that, but I also don’t remember him ever telling me that. The fight of my generation was about to begin, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me if the President was exactly right. Saddam was bad. We were good. Show me where to sign up.
“Why do you want to be a Marine?” the recruiter asked that hot July afternoon. “I want to make a difference,” I told him. “And I want to be the best.” He leaned back in his metal chair behind his gun-metal gray tanker desk. He stared at me. “You think you have what it takes?” he finally asked. He was sizing me up, trying to figure out which sales pitch I would respond to best. A choose-your-own-adventure way of convincing young men and women to serve. I didn’t need any convincing, though. I was already sold.
Because I wasn’t yet 18 years old, I needed my parents’ permission to enlist. My father had served in the Army at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and he told me once that his life’s greatest regret was not having had a chance to serve in combat. His father, my grandfather, had fought at the Battle of Okinawa. I thought my dad would be proud I wanted to follow in these footsteps.
A week after my visit to the recruiter, I broke the news to my father while we were shooting hoops at the YMCA. I was nervous, so I blurted out that I wanted to join the Marines and that I wanted to go to Iraq.
“Have to talked to your mother,” he asked. “Not yet,” I said. “I was hoping you could help me make the case to her.”
My father looked down at his watch. “Hey, we better get you to work. You’re going to be late,” he said. I could tell he wasn’t ready to hear what I had said. We headed to the locker room and changed in silence. He dropped me off at work and said my mom would pick me up when my shift was over.
A few hours later, my father returned. He looked like he was on a mission—eyes focused on me, arms swinging at his side. He waved his hand as I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing there.
“Just let me say what I need to before you respond,” he said. “First, I get why you’d want to join. I really do. I’ve been there myself. The thing is…” He stopped to collect his thoughts. “The thing is that I just don’t feel good about Iraq.”
My father’s no dove. He believes strongly that if America’s national security interests dictate that we send our troops into harm’s way, we should do so, but with the first-hand knowledge that war has always had a negative effect on the minds and bodies of our troops in countless ways. His father came home from the Pacific a mean and violent drunk, and he knew lots of Vietnam vets who ended up at the bottom of a bottle. He told me that he had worked his ass off at his factory job so that he could afford to send me to college. He wanted me to live a life he never had the chance to live.
“This war in Iraq is going to get messy; it’s much more complicated than the news lets on, and it doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight,” he continued. “And quite frankly, I don’t want to see you get your ass shot off for people who don’t seem to want our help.”
We cut a deal: My father told me to go to college and then when I graduated if I still wanted to join up, he would support me going through OCS to become an officer.
While I was in college, I lost the taste for military service. I studied history and followed the news, and I was saddened by how things played out in Iraq and Afghanistan. I met a wonderful woman who eventually became my wife, and who wasn’t interested in being a military spouse. Still, a part of me felt guilty for not serving, as though I wasn’t doing my part. I envied those who had served and felt less than in many ways.
I’ve since made peace with my past. In college I learned skills that have made it possible for me to dedicate my life to advocating for veterans and helping them tell their stories of war and coming home. On this, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I thank those who have served, and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I thank you for suffering for me and my family.