For a new generation of Marines, 9/11 is history
PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. – It's still pitch black and Marine recruits are scurrying around under garish spotlights, stacking their weapons and packs, all under the constant screams of drill instructors who loom over them.
Soon they're filing into a cavernous auditorium. A long, surging stream of shaved heads and green T-shirts. They take their seats and get ready for a history lesson with Staff Sgt. Mark Anthony Ross.
"By a show of hands, who was born after the September 11th attack ... most of us right?" Ross booms. "Do we know what happened during the 9/11 attacks? For those of us who may not know what happened, our country was under attack from the terrorists, make sense? They came within our borders and attacked us from the inside."
Monday marks the 22nd anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It was a raw, searing day for Americans who watched the Twin Towers collapse, the Pentagon burn and a plane meant for the U.S. Capitol slam into a Pennsylvania field. More than 3,000 people died. But the terrorist attacks are now fading into history, now that American troops are no longer at war.
All these new recruits were born several years after the 9/11 attacks. Even their instructors have vague memories of that morning. One of the drill sergeants outside was in kindergarten when 9/11 happened. And Sgt. Ross? He was just 8 years old.
"I was in second grade," said Ross, "and I remember I was in my math class and my teacher got a phone call from some family member stating that her uncle, she lost her uncle to that incident. So I just remember her like rushing out like highly emotional and sending us back home to our loved ones."
'An exercise of forgetting'
For many Americans, 9/11 is now simply a date to mark, much like December 7th with the Pearl Harbor attacks. Even the military war colleges are moving on. The talk is not of 9/11 the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and lessons learned, but China and new weapons needed.
Carter Malkasian, who chairs the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and wrote the book, The American War in Afghanistan: A History, said Sept. 11 isn't spoken about directly much, "though there is a fairly strong sense, even pride, that the armed forces protected America against terrorism after 9/11."
But there is, he said, "a recognition among nearly everyone across ranks and civilian position that we all need to focus on China and Russia. For right or wrong, it could be said we are going through an exercise of forgetting."
Peter Fever, who teaches political science at Duke University and focuses on military issues, put it this way: "My sense is for my entering students – and thus for those entering military service too – 9/11 feels as historical and remote as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Pearl Harbor. It has been taught but not felt."
My sense is for my entering students – and thus for those entering military service too – 9/11 feels as historical and remote as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Pearl Harbor.
Feaver said many high schools, even colleges, struggle to teach the Global War on Terror in a balanced and informative way, so the difficult questions of what went right and wrong are not addressed. "I think our institutions see little pay off from that and prefer to focus on the future threats," he said.
Recruits are not signing up to fight terrorists, like their predecessors who joined in a flurry of anger and patriotism to go to war. There are more than a hundred recruits in this class and Sgt. Ross asks who wants to go to war. Only a few hands go up. Today, they're looking for benefits, college money or for Angel Benites — personal improvement.
"I want to develop a warrior ethos code, a way of living, more ethics, more morals," said the 23 year old from Arlington, Va. "That's why I joined. And because it's difficult, I go towards difficult things."
For recruits like Kendall Miller, an 18-year-old recruit from Ohio, it's more about service to the nation.
"I love the United States and I wanted to do anything I could to help," he said. "I am able bodied. I can help any way I can."
Sgt. Maj. Alkedra Tyler admitted she was drawn to the Marines as a high school student, impressed by their dress-blue uniforms. Then 9/11 happened.
She was 18, already signed up for boot camp, and working as a nursing home aide in North Carolina. She glanced at a TV and saw the Towers fall.
"I called my recruiter and I said I want my date bumped up," she recalled. "Can I leave sooner? The recruiter was like, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' And I said, 'Yes I want to do this. Did you not see what happened on the news? I want to do this.' So he asked me how soon did I want to leave. And I was like, 'I'll leave tomorrow if you tell me.' "
She ended up with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, fixing generators in local villages.
A few years later, 1st Sgt. Brian Dear joined up to fight too, eager to avenge 9/11. He served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
"In recruit training that's all they pitched to us. Going to war, going to war, going to war," he recalled. "And that's what we all wanted. We're all talking about I can't wait to go to war, you know, I don't want this to ever happen to my country again."
They can't pay for college, so that's why they're joining the Marine Corps. So they never related going to war. It's all benefits, benefits, benefits.
When he served as a drill sergeant in 2016, there was still an ongoing military mission in Afghanistan. "So it was easy," he said. "You know, I used to tell my recruits, 'Good majority of you are going to go now.' I can't use that now. What we're using our benefits, educational benefits, VA loan, those are the things we're using to keep motivating them."
Now, he says the idea of going to war is not a major motivating factor. "They can't pay for college, so that's why they're joining the Marine Corps," said Dear. "So they never related going to war. It's all benefits, benefits, benefits."
'Every year, every day'
Still, even among these young Marine recruits, a few still feel the tug, the sadness of 9/11 even though they weren't even born when it happened.
Jake McKay, whose father was a Marine, says a close family friend died in one of the Twin Towers.
"The story is what we heard is that he was helping people evacuate," said McKay. "He ran in and was helping people get out. And he was crushed by a support beam and it broke his legs. So it feels like it's still a recovery for my family. There's still pain that comes around, but a bit of fading. It's becoming more a remembrance than a grief."
John Michael Vigiano steps into the shade after training on an obstacle course with his fellow recruits. He's drenched in sweat, pulls off his helmet and gloves.
September 11th is never far from his thoughts. His father was a New York police detective that morning, and rushed into one of the towers with other cops. No one made it out. An uncle also died that day.
"It's my life and it's something that I think about every year, every day," he said.
His mother was also a cop, on leave and caring for him. He was just three months old.
"She said that I saved her life because I kept her out of work," Vigiano said. "And she was focusing on me rather than all the dark things going on in the world."
At the family home on New York's Long Island, there's a kind of shrine to his dad. There's a portrait in the dining room, along with his ID card, badge and medals he earned over the years.
And today, even though he's still in training, they'll all reach out.
"We'll just stay together as a family," he said "We just sit together and talk between me, my two brothers and my grandmother and mom."
He says he'll do his time in the Marines, then head back to New York, to become a fire fighter like his grandfather.
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