When I entered West Point’s Thayer Gate – and army life – 20 years ago last month, America was not at war. Not really anyway. Back then, when a 17-year-old’s mother (had to) sign him into the military, he might expect some peacekeeping duty in Kosovo or – at worst – an unlucky street battle in Somalia or a lopsided 100-hour ground war in the Gulf. More exciting were expected foreign flings with German, South Korean – or heck, even Kentucky – girls.
Then everything changed.
Two months and 10 days later, my section of exhausted cadets were shadowboxing in front of wall-sized mirrors in Arvin Gym – in what’s got to be about the only mandatory freshman pugilism class in the country – when someone ran in yelling something about the Twin Towers and a plane crash. The rest of the morning – and frankly the next two decades – remains a blur. There was already plenty excited – yet tinged with anxious – talk of war that day, week, month, and year. We got the war we expected – heck, half wanted – but it ballooned into something larger in scope and scale than even we posturing teen warriors would’ve imagined.
The (seemingly) obvious Afghan-directed retaliation was quickly eclipsed by an invasion and bloody interminable occupation of Iraq. Soon enough, graduates of our Air Force and Naval Academy football rivals were also bombing and blockading Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and across Africa’s Sahel. Below those bombs, Army soldiers were killing and dying in many of these spots – some of which, like Niger, probably less than five percent of Americans could pronounce…let alone locate on a map.
By my junior and senior year at West Point, it wasn’t uncommon to start mandatory mess hall mornings with moments of silence – whilst the a loudspeaker announced another graduate’s name who’d been killed in combat. Sure enough, on May 28, 2005, my own class donned our fresh lieutenants-bars. Coincidentally consisting of exactly 911 graduates, we donned Time Magazine’s cover – dubbed “The Class of 9/11.” Within 18 months, some 70 percent of us were, or had been, to war not in Afghanistan – but an Iraq utterly unrelated to those September 11th attacks. Since then, eight of my classmates have been killed, a few took their own lives, and far more wounded, in wars that our generation of officer candidates never expected to fight back on July 2, 2001.
Read the full piece here.