With the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9-11, I thought I would give my perspective on that fateful day and the path I would embark on thereafter. I had just started 5th grade in Murray, Iowa. I vaguely recall sitting in Mr. Jensen’s computer class, when strangely class was cut short. We were told to head back to our teacher’s classroom. For me I believe it would have been Mrs. Burgus, she began to roll in the TV which always excited us kids because that meant a movie and no classwork. Except for this time, it was different, teachers were crying, and all the kids were confused. Shortly after the 2nd tower would be hit, it was explained on the news we were under attack. Some of my classmates began crying. That day there was a loss of innocence in children’s lives across the country. At that age, terrorism was a word we had never heard before. Suddenly we were seeing people jumping from the towers. One tower collapsed, the other followed. I remember the TV’s were shut off, and we all started singing “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. We sang patriotic songs the following days. One of my classmates, Alyssa Nelson, reminded me recently that she remembered me mentioning I was going to join the military. I do not recall that exactly, but I do know like many others 9-11 is the reason I joined. My father is a former Marine, so I grew up hearing his stories and watching war movies, naturally, I wanted to serve as he did. I was dead set on joining the military.
One thing that has always stuck in my mind was seeing the news reports and the photos of everyone killed in Iraq, for a while it was almost daily. I am not sure how other kids felt at the time but to me, it fueled that willingness to serve even more. I have a cousin, Donny Daughenbaugh, who was wounded in 2004. He and his brother Dusty enlisted, I remember hearing my family talk about him being overseas then being shot. He survived and is doing well but still carries the round in his neck. I recall a teacher bringing me a clipping of a newspaper and asking if I was related, I hung it inside my locker at school.
My brother Brandon is 3 years older than me, he enlisted in 2006 I believe. He had the same reasons for joining as me. Dad planted the bug in our ears, we have had a lot of our family serve, then 9-11 sealed the deal. He has spent over 4 years in combat zones alone, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. So, at this point, you could say it’s a family tradition to serve for us.
I enlisted in the Army my Junior year in 2008 and shipped out to Basic Combat Training Summer of 2009. Basic training and AIT both went well, I was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky for my duty station. Home of the Screaming Eagles, the most decorated military unit in the world. Some would recognize it from Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, and many movies or novels. Within a few weeks, they told us we would be deploying, that’s when it started to settle in that I am finally going to get to really serve my country.
May 27th 2010, I deployed to Afghanistan for a year. We were sent to southeast Afghanistan right along the Pakistan border. It was something else, parts of the country were beautiful but where I was it was desolate. Mountains in the distance, moon dust, and tree lines that provided great concealment for the Taliban who enjoyed planting bombs, and lobbing rockets and mortars at us all hours of the day.
While we were in Afghanistan, we would receive letters from small towns and churches across the country. One day I received a package from Mrs. Gonseth and Mrs. Kleinbeck in Murray, Iowa. It was a stack of thank you cards, drawings, and candy from them, a few other teachers, and their kids(students). I cannot express how much gratitude I have for the little community in southern Iowa that helped raise me and for sending me that care package. I still have a stack of those cards tucked away in a tote of my military memorabilia. If you ladies happen to stumble across this, just know I made it home and am doing well. Which leads me to a hard part to think about.
Those kids who sent me the letters back in 2010, would today be close to the age of the 14 fine folks who sacrificed their lives in Kabul recently. Those 14 who perished at the end of this war very likely sent similar cards to those who served at the beginning of the war, only to follow in their boot prints. Some of those great Americans would not have even been born at the time this war was started yet they still felt the desire to serve selflessly knowing the risks.
My deployment was coming to an end, nearly a year passed, then May 2nd happened. We got the news that Navy SEALS killed Bin Laden. For me I cannot tell you how good that felt to hear, it was a huge relief. Which did not last long because it seemed as though every Taliban fighter in the immediate area was stirred up like a hornet’s nest. We knew him being killed was not going to mean the end of a war, but hopefully, it gave closure to a lot of families who needed it. I was back stateside a few weeks later.
Nowadays I have many roles, but one of the most important is being that of a Fireman in Creston, Iowa. I have got a solid team of people. To me, it puts even more into perspective the sacrifices the first responders had to go through on 9-11. The physical demand of climbing those 110 stories was the least of their worries, though I can attest that it was no easy feat humping hundreds of pounds of gear into the unknown to save as many as possible. The mental toughness that a first responder must have is like nothing else, you typically only see people at their worst and that can take its toll on someone. Not to mention the hazards of breathing in everything they had to that day which ultimately has caused complications and death among hundreds of first responders since 9-11.
By way of another venture of mine, I was able to meet and become good acquaintances with Garrett Goodwin, who was a first responder on 9-11. He spent 24 consecutive days looking for survivors. Like many others, he developed COPD, which later resulted in his death. As a result of 9-11, and the 20+ years of the global war on terror that followed, we have witnessed and documented the greatest feats of heroism and above all the American spirit. Do not let those sacrifices go unremembered. Through all that we have been put through, we still bounce back stronger.
This begs the question, was it all worth it? After seeing us pull out of Bagram overnight and the way we did it, I was devastated like many other Veterans and Americans. We spent so much time building up, lives lost, only to tuck our tail and leave in the middle of the night. I spent nearly every day since asking myself and a few close vets what was it even for? After having time to process it I have come up with this. In the words of Rob O’Neill, “We were doing it for the single mom who dropped her kids off at school, went to work, only to jump out of a tower an hour later and in her last act of decency held her dress tight as not to expose herself, because jumping to her death was a better option than the 2500 degree office building behind her.” We did it for the 343 Fireman who gave their last full measure to save every single man woman and child they could. We did it for those first responders like my friend Garrett who still ran into the fray if it meant he could save just one more life. We did it for the 2996 killed by terrorist cowards who hate us for our way of life. There is an entire generation of women and children in Afghanistan who are grateful for the jolly green American giants that held off the worst people for 20 years so they may simply learn to read and write without fear of persecution. We did it so an act of that magnitude does not happen here again. Yes, it was worth it.
For me being a protector and serving people has always come naturally, and I would not have it any other way. I have been humbled in my professions which makes me a more compassionate servant to the strangers who may need me in their darkest hour. America is a beacon of hope and she breeds some of the most brilliant and selfless people, while also creating a haven for those who wish her harm. It takes a continued effort to keep the evil at bay and to preserve and protect what America represents.
On the 20th anniversary of 9-11 I hope you reflect on what it has meant for you, honor those who have fallen in these last 20 years, reach out to those who we thankfully still have with us. Say an additional prayer for the families of the 14 who fell in Kabul. May their sacrifices not be forgotten.
IFC Comms Director