20 years after 9/11, the American story, as told by veterans

In a traumatized nation two decades ago, a group of people dashed to military recruitment offices and enlisted in America’s new wars. 

Some of these same veterans have now taken on a vastly different mission 20 years after the nation-rattling events of Sept. 11, 2001. Now they’re helping people flee Afghanistan.

The veterans’ story traces a chapter in American history that began on one terror-filled day — on that Tuesday morning when hijacked planes tore into symbols of U.S. might, raining deadly debris from the clear, denim-blue sky upon a newly panicked superpower.

The World Trade Center burns after being hit by a plane in New York in this file photo from Sept. 11, 2001. (Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters)

Arun Iyer watched in disbelief from his apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at the skyscrapers’ collapse at the World Trade Center.

Neighbours in his building walked up to the rooftop, hugging each other as a cloud of dust and smoke drifted over the skyline. For a moment, he said, he convinced himself the towers were still standing.

“It didn’t process,” Iyer said in an interview. “You’re actually playing tricks on yourself, saying, ‘They’re still there.’ … Almost childlike. … Even though I’d actually heard them crumble.” 

Iyer picked up the next morning’s Wall Street Journal for his next-door neighbour, who never returned home. He was among the nearly 3,000 killed that day.

Iyer went on to call a Navy recruitment centre, asking: “What do you need me to do?” He became an intelligence officer, then a Navy commander, and served in a variety of deployments. 

New Yorkers, including Arun Iyer, watched the disaster unfold from their apartment buildings. (Reuters)

Joseph Roche was farther from home that day. He was in Israel, volunteering with the Israeli military, and was in a tank shop near Jerusalem when a commanding officer asked the American citizens present to come to his office. 

“[A major] said, ‘Your country is under attack. Come with me.'” 

Veteran Joe Roche fears people will forget the Sept. 11 attacks themselves — and the good things he says the U.S. did in response. (Alexander Panetta/CBC News)

Roche now fears future generations might forget what Sept. 11 was like in real time, as it fades from memory into historical prose.

In real time, it was successive waves of terror.

What people remember from 9/11

First one plane struck; people thought it might be an accident. Then another. Then one hit the Pentagon. Then those giant skyscrapers fell in New York. And a plane crashed in Pennsylvania, before it could strike its intended target in Washington.

The Pentagon wasn’t the only Washington-area target that day. Al-Qaeda also intended to strike the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The city descended into panic that day. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Roche’s eyes well up as he recalls what happened after he left his supervisor’s office. He pulled out a transistor radio and heard of the Twin Towers’ collapse. He recalls falling to his knees.

“That’s when it hit me — just how big this was,” he said.

Almost 3,000 people were killed during the 9/11 attacks, with victims’ remains still being identified today. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

His parents were both musicians who often played in New York City; they took him to visit the World Trade Center as a child. Roche calls himself a “Himalayan hillbilly”: one parent was a violinist from India, the other an opera singer from West Virginia.

Roche had been a history major from Minnesota and the reason he volunteered in the Israeli army, he said, was his belief in the 1990s that al-Qaeda and terrorism represented a historic growing threat.

He flew back to the U.S. in October 2001, enlisted in the army, and served two tours in Iraq as a combat engineer.

Jordon Daniel, a U.S. navy veteran, has been helping Afghan refugees get settled in his hometown of Denver, Colo. (Jordon Daniel)

In Denver, Colo., Jordon Daniel woke up on the tragic morning of Sept. 11 worried about his Denver Broncos. 

He turned on his TV, seeking updates about a leg injury suffered by a star player in the previous evening’s Monday Night Football game.

Daniel said he still gets goosebumps thinking about the hours that followed.

“Nobody on the roads. No planes in the air,” Daniel said. “I remember American flags being everywhere.”

He enlisted in the navy — the fourth generation in his family to do so — and served numerous tours as a sailor and a private security guard in the Persian Gulf, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan. 

It’s almost impossible to overstate the lingering effects of 9/11 on the country. To this day, victims’ remains from the ashes are still being identified

The question that haunts veterans

Up to three million Americans served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as soldiers or military support.

Music, movies, sports — all were shaped by the attacks. Baseball teams began playing in military camouflage on Memorial Day.

Politics was transformed.

Security gained precedence over civil liberties. Washington drastically increased its military spending, albeit not to Cold War levels. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost trillions, and veterans’ care will cost trillions more.

More than 7,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in the post-9/11 wars. Here, Lesleigh Coyer, of Saginaw, Mich., is seen lying in front of the grave of her brother, Ryan Coyer, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Travel procedures became notoriously complex, more expensive and more sophisticated in ways still felt today.

About 800,000 people were killed around the world in subsequent wars — mostly civilians; more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel died.

Roche says his own unit lost 22 soldiers.

Many veterans are now haunted by the question of whether their sacrifice amounted to anything, with Afghanistan once again controlled by the Taliban.

Iyer, who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, said he’s heard a range of emotions lately from veterans. 

“Disappointment. Anger. Bitterness. Frustration,” he said. “I’m hearing the gamut.”

Roche, who did tours in Iraq in 2003-04 and 2008-09, is seen here posing with an Iraqi civilian. (Joseph Roche)

For his part, he said he tries not to ask himself the question: Was it worth it? Otherwise, he said, he could spend days, even years, grappling with it.

“I just choose not to indulge it,” he said. “I just know we haven’t had an attack on the homeland since 9/11.” 

Daniel said he feels it was time to leave Afghanistan and there was no easy way to do it.

Others are more frustrated. 

One military chaplain, Scott Carson, counselled soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan after they killed people, or saw friends killed. Many veterans now feel let down by the abrupt Afghan pullout, he said.

Among the general public, a majority has told pollsters they disapprove of how the departure was handled, and President Joe Biden’s popularity has plunged.

“Some are very, very upset,” Carson said of the pullout. “Not that it happened. But how it happened.”

They see it as a “total failure” of leadership, he said. “There’s a lot of talk, like, ‘Look at that. We just armed a terrorist organization.'”

Roche said while he has no doubt the post-9/11 missions were worth it, he finds himself reassuring younger soldiers: “Your role was virtuous. It was wonderful.”

Afghan refugees ride a bus, taking them to a refugee-processing centre at Dulles International Airport near Washington on Aug. 25. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

He also said U.S. development work left an indelible mark in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where literacy rates and female school enrollment skyrocketed. 

His own tasks included setting up an internet connection at Baghdad University and his unit ran hundreds of projects involving banks, museums and schools, and energy and infrastructure.

“Who makes a movie out of this? They make movies out of shooting, dying,” Roche said. “But this matters too.… That was a beautiful thing.”

Roche even once expressed that view in a public letter, which then-president George W. Bush quoted in his 2004 Republican convention speech.

Post-9/11 politics

In hindsight, it’s easy to forget just how eager Americans were for war.

Pew surveys trace the mood of the country after 9/11, when a staggering number of Americans said they felt depressed, were struggling to concentrate and weren’t sleeping.

Trust in government briefly spiked to astronomical heights, before plummeting to today’s historic, democracy-eroding low. A Republican president, Bush, even got an eardrum-rattling standing ovation in a very blue New York City. 

WATCH | A moment of towering popularity for George W. Bush:

What Americans sought from their government was revenge. Eighty-two percent supported a military operation to retaliate against the attackers. Most expected it would be done within a year — a tragic miscalculation.

Many Americans were willing to curb civil liberties or torture terror suspects.

The effect on minority groups was dire. Hate crimes against Muslims, as reported by the FBI, multiplied more than tenfold in 2001 from the previous year and have never returned to pre-9/11 levels.

On immigration, attitudes hardened immediately, and deportations of undocumented migrants multiplied.

Views against Islam and immigration kept hardening for years among Republicans, until the party nominated a candidate who talked about banning Muslims, building a wall and severely limiting immigration — Donald Trump.

Today’s mission: Evacuation

Terror attacks have continued in the U.S., albeit on a much smaller scale; a growing share is attributed to far-right extremists.

Now the foreign wars are over, and thousands of Afghans are arriving on America’s doorstep, fleeing a resurgent Taliban. Yesterday’s invasion is now an evacuation; the military project, now a humanitarian one. 

Afghan refugees board after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington last month. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Some veterans grieving since the fall of Kabul are finding comfort in helping Afghans flee, Roche said.

Roche, Iyer and Daniel are all volunteers with Team Rubicon, a group that deploys veterans to disaster areas, to maintain their sense of purpose and community.

At Dulles International Airport near Washington, Roche has been helping government agencies feed, clothe and shepherd Afghan evacuees upon their arrival. 

Volunteers from the veterans’ group Team Rubicon are seen here moving furniture intended for Afghan refugees. (Jordon Daniel)

In Denver, Daniel is assembling, moving and installing furniture for Afghan families arriving in his area.

“It was really healing,” he said. “It helped heal wounds I didn’t know I still had.”

An Afghan refugee elbow-bumps a U.S. army officer at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 31. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Iyer has been thinking of his mother. 

She was displaced by the partition of India in 1947, moving from Karachi to Mumbai — and ultimately to the United States, where she worked as a physician.

Now her son is leading a task force of volunteers at the Washington-area airport, helping Afghans and detecting, in the clouds of history, wreckage and war, traces of a great American story.

“That’s what makes the United States so special.”

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