Leaving Afghanistan: Our Longest War | Act 2: 9/11 - The 'surreal moment' that led many to the Army

Posted at 11:08 AM, Oct 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-30 23:28:06-04

For nearly every member of the 276th Engineering Company, Sept. 11, 2001 was a defining, searing moment. For many, it was that day that crystallized a desire to serve in the United States Army.

Staff Sgt. Cesar Martinez was in high school – on his way to FFA class – when the towers fell. Days after the anniversary of the attacks, he told us, it was that day when he decided to join the military.

“I thought: ‘You know what? It’s not fair. I'm going to give my part, I'm going to do my part,’” he said.

On the 13th anniversary of the attacks that launched America’s longest war, this base paused for reflection and remembrance.

Beginning on the night of September 10th, soldiers took up a relay, with each unit running for thirty minutes around a track at the heart of the base. Each soldier carried three cards, each bearing the name of a service member who had died taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom. After a half hour, another unit would begin the run, and those who finished would read off the names of the fallen, and attach the cards to a board. 

By morning, thousands of names had been read, and the cards remained as a stark reminder of what was lost as a consequence of that day.

Lt. Adam Winters said that the military’s reverence for 9/11 and what it wrought in the thirteen years since have changed his view of that day.

“That was just a sad day in our country's history for me. That's how I viewed it for a long time,” Winters said. “And it wasn't until my first 9/11 anniversary when I was in the military that it really sunk in. Not only that day, but all the sacrifices that were made after that day.”

The soldiers talk little of the civilians who lost their lives on 9/11, but often of those who’ve fallen fighting in the war it launched.

Reactions to 9/11 also vary by generation. Some soldiers here, like Sgt. Brandon Lewis, had already enlisted when the United States was attacked.

“So I don’t want to [become a soldier] because 9/11 happened. I came in before then,” Lewis recalled. “It’s just something I always wanted to do as a kid. I view it as just another job.”

And then, in a stark reminder of how long this war has been going on, there are those here too young to remember a time before America was at war.

“I was in 2nd grade,” Specialist Zac Roberts said. “Math class. I don't remember what we were doing at the time, but that's what class I was in.”

Roberts, 20 years old, told us he couldn’t remember a time when U.S. soldiers were not in Afghanistan.

“I've never known anything different, pretty much,” Roberts said.