For service members of my generation, September 11, 2001 represented a pivot point in our lives.
We’d grown up in the relative comfort of the late ’80s and ’90s, watching movies like “Fight Club” and lamenting our generation’s lack of great purpose. We watched war movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” and through the lens of adolescent testosterone, we missed the carefully recreated horrors of war, seeing instead only the grit, determination, and heroism of the Greatest Generation.
And then 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes one Tuesday morning. As the passengers on board were subject to brutal treatment, with some being killed in the process of taking over the planes, I slept in. As the first plane made impact with the North Tower, I took a leisurely shower. By the time the second plane hit… The realization had washed over me. My generation had found the purpose we’d so longed for.
But to my utter horror, I wasn’t filled with the calm resolve I watched Tom Hanks carry through France in “Saving Private Ryan.” I didn’t even have the flagrant lack of self-preservation I saw in “Fight Club’s” Tyler Durden.
In that moment, as Americans died before my eyes, I found none of the courage I’d seen time and time again in my TV and movie heroes. Instead, all I found was fear. I knew we were going to war. I knew Americans were dying. And as I sat on my couch, my only thoughts were selfish. Nothing would ever be the same… and from the edge of the precipice, I could see a new era — one full of war that would stretch on for decades. I wished with all my heart that we could just go back.
Go back to longing for a purpose. Go back to lamenting our boredom. I wished I could stay comfortable.
A few months later, a badly broken leg and ensuing surgery took me out of contention for service upon graduation. The Marine recruiter I met with told me they were getting plenty of volunteers, and medical waivers like me just weren’t a priority. I suppose it should have been a relief; after all, I was genuinely afraid… but instead, I felt only shame. I watched young men and women I knew ship off to the fight, each doing their part — from fixing trucks to kicking in doors — and I sat on my couch. Comfortable.
Just a few years later, with two battlefronts already raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Corps changed tracks. They needed bodies, and they weren’t being nearly as picky about who they’d take. I was working as a pit mechanic for a racing team and living with my girlfriend at the time, but as 2005 gave way to 2006, my girlfriend got sick. At first, we thought it was just a cold. We had bills to pay and no health insurance, so she pushed through… only to find herself in the hospital with pneumonia. With medical bills piling up, I made a decision.
That Wednesday, I visited our local recruiter. I asked him when health insurance would kick in if I enlisted, and he told me the day that I shipped out to recruit training. I asked him when I could ship out, and he told me that depended on what MOS (military occupational specialty) I wanted.
I told him I didn’t care, and left for Parris Island four days later. My new wife would be fine thanks to the Corps, and it was time for me to earn that.
My story isn’t unique among the service members of my generation — trapped somewhere between our Gen-X older brothers and our millennial younger ones, but today’s service members are a different breed entirely. For me, the call to serve was as much about fear as any sense of patriotic duty. I was ashamed of the fear I felt, and I was set on proving to myself that I could do more than just be comfortable. I wanted to live up to memory of my grandfather who fought in World War II. I wanted to prove to my Vietnam veteran father that I too could shoulder the weight of our nation’s hurt.
Today, young men and women who were born after those terrible attacks continue to find their way into recruiting offices. These folks grew up in the era of internet connectivity, where idealism gives way to sour grapes and witty memes, and patriotic duty so often lands like the punchline of a joke nobody dares tell. They didn’t watch those planes bring the Twin Towers down. They don’t have memories of visiting a pre-9/11 New York City. They grew up in a nation at war… and when their time to serve comes up, they willfully discard that comfort I was so afraid to lose.
These young men and women didn’t experience the existential pivot my generation did. They didn’t watch our nation get sucker punched in real time, nor did they feel the anger and sorrow we did, as we watched desperate Americans hurl themselves from the burning towers, hoping to escape the pain brought to them by our nation’s enemies for the fleeting moment it took to reach the ground.
No. This new generation of service members didn’t need to have their hearts broken to push them to serve. They simply hear our nation’s call, and sign on the dotted line.
My generation longed for a chance to prove ourselves, and let me be honest, many of the incredible men and women I served alongside did exactly that… But today’s young Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coasties, and Guardians don’t have to carry that chip on their shoulder into the fight.
You young men and women are the best of us. And as a veteran, a Marine, a father, a patriot, and an American, I thank you.
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- Operation Neptune’s Spear: Today, 10 years ago, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden
Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tommy Huynh