WASHINGTON — The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of young Americans watched as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and Pentagon, many of them following the coverage on televisions wheeled into their classrooms.
Some of those Americans were inspired to join the military, eager to be part of the fight against the country's enemies.
During the year after 9/11, more people enlisted into the military than in any single year since then. In total, 181,510 Americans enlisted into active-duty service that year, and 72,908 joined the reserves, according to the USO. Before the attack, many weren’t aware of the threats against the United States.
“We all grew up really fast,” said Sophia-Helene Meese de Tricht, who was inspired to enlist.
In the 20 years since the attacks, some of those service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan multiple times. Some of the troops concluded their service and used the GI Bill to finish college, while others made a career out of the military. Their lives, and the lives of their families, were shaped by 9/11.
Cpl. Joslin Joseph
Joslin Joseph had planned to be at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Joseph, then a college student, was on summer break from Ohio State University and back in his hometown of Clifton, N.J., 10 miles from New York City. He and his friend Rich had planned to visit the city one last time before returning to school, and Joseph had the schedule and route all planned out: leave at 7 a.m. on the 33 Bus from Clifton to The Port Authority, then on to the World Trade Center, where Rich, an amateur photographer, wanted to try out his new telephoto lens.
Late on the night of Sept. 10, Rich called and changed their plans. He didn’t want to wake up that early and asked they leave later in the morning. By the time Joseph woke up and had breakfast on Sept. 11, the first plane had struck the first tower.
“We still talk about it all the time,” said Joseph, now 41. “One way or another, it would’ve been very close. We would’ve been in the area.”
Instead, Rich and Joseph drove to Garrett Mountain Reservation, which overlooks the New York City skyline. They drove along a cliff, and through a clearing in the trees where they saw their first glimpse of the destruction: a clear, blue sky over most of the horizon, with thick plums of black smoke emitting from buildings near the bottom of their view.
From the parking area at Garrett Mountain, they walked up a short trail to the overlook. As they walked, a man ran down.
“This is seared in my memory,” Joseph said. “A guy came running down, literally pulling his hair out. He yelled, ‘The towers came down! The towers came down!”
When they arrived at the overlook, dozens of other people had already congregated there. Joseph saw that one tower had collapsed, and it was clear the other was going to come down.
“People were crying, people were pissed, saying, ‘We’re going to war. We’re going to kill them,’ ” Joseph said.
Just as police arrived to close the overlook, Joseph witnessed the second tower fall.
Joseph’s parents both worked at hospitals in New Jersey, and in the following few days, he volunteered to take donated medical supplies into New York City. He dropped off the supplies at Washington Square Park, one mile north of ground zero.
Now 20 years later, Joseph choked up while describing what he saw there. As he turned a corner, he was faced with a wall of people, all frantic and clutching photos — some of them obviously taken off the walls of their homes – searching for their loved ones.
Joseph, who is Indian, remembers an Indian woman running up to him. She held tightly onto a photo of a serious and proud-looking man.
“She comes up to me and says, ‘Please, I can’t find my husband. He’s my whole life, I don’t know what to do,’” Joseph recalled. “I didn’t know what to say, I just know I had hatred in my heart like I never had before.”
Joseph saw the second tower fall with his own eyes, not filtered through a television screen like was the experience of many Americans that day. He saw the immediate aftermath of the attack up close. When he returned to Ohio for school, he couldn’t make himself care about his studies. He lost direction, he said.
Soon after, he dropped out of college and decided to join the military. His parents and then-girlfriend talked Joseph out of enlisting for a while, but by the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, he was defiant.
“I was very convinced that we were doing the right thing and that we were going to solve this problem,” Joseph said of the war on terrorism. “I thought we were really going to put an end to this and be part of something big that would help transform that whole region and make the world safer.”
Joseph enlisted in the Marine Corps and was assigned to an administrative role. He fought for a deployment and was finally sent on a combat mission to Iraq in 2007. By that time, Joseph didn’t feel like the U.S. was doing much to help Iraqi citizens.
“I kept telling myself, at least we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan,” he said.
When the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government and took control of the country last month, it left Joseph feeling like it was all a waste – for himself and for the hundreds of thousands of other troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 20 years.
“It wasn’t just years of my life, I have busted knees and a busted back – there are residual effects,” he said. “And for others, they have mental health injuries, broken relationships. There’s physical pain and mental anguish they have to deal with. Was it really worth it?”
Joseph left the military as a corporal in 2008 and finished his degree at Ohio State. He’s worked in the sports industry for more than a decade. For a long time, he felt insecure about his military service, having spent much of his time in the Marine Corps at a desk job.
More recently, though, Joseph feels proud of the fact that he answered the call to serve his country.
“I just think to myself, it doesn’t matter how the war turned out. When my country needed me, I showed up,” Joseph said. “I was not athletic. I was not a good shooter, and I didn’t have the most glamourous job in the military, but I showed up. I’m always going to be proud of the fact that I was a Marine.”
Spc. Naveed Shah
As a Muslim immigrant to the United States, Naveed Shah felt a special connection to his adopted home and everything for which it stood, including freedom and democracy.
That’s why, when it was made known who was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shah felt like he took a punch in the gut. As Muslim-Americans became the subjects of hostility and mistrust in the U.S., Shah felt the pressure to prove everybody wrong.
“Growing up in northern Virginia, it’s a very diverse community. We have such a huge community of Muslims from all different backgrounds. But we were kind of being seen as the bad guy, even here,” Shah said. “It was not easy.”
Shah, who is Pakistani, immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. He was in eighth grade at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Springfield, Va., on Sept. 11, 2001. His math teacher turned on the television after the first plane struck the World Trade Center. Sitting at their desks with their algebra notebooks out, the class watched the second plane hit the tower.
The school is about 10 miles from the Pentagon, and when the class heard the news of the attack there, students began to panic. Shah, like most other kids, were picked up from school early.
In the years following the attacks, Shah felt a sense of duty to the country. He joined student government in high school, and he joined the Army shortly after graduation.
“I felt very strongly that it was an honorable profession,” he said. “It was a really important thing to do for me personally as somebody who felt a very strong kinship to my adopted homeland.”
Shah deployed on an overseas assignment in South Korea, and he we went to Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
Now 33 and reflecting on the past 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Shah said he would do it all over again.
“At the end of the day, we were there for each other more than any political or military purpose,” he said. “We were there for each other more than anything, and that’s what we have to continue to do now.”
Shah, now a real estate agent in northern Virginia, has volunteered with veterans groups to help service members transition from active duty into civilian life. In 2016, he was invited by former President Barack Obama to the U.S. Capitol for his final State of the Union address. Shah sat right next to First Lady Michelle Obama during the speech.
In the address, Obama spoke about the contributions of immigrants, including their service in the U.S. military.
“Just thinking about it now, I’m just choking up again, because I can’t believe how far I’ve come, from Saudi Arabia to the Capitol – it’s been a wild journey,” Shah said. “I was trying to represent people like me to the best of my ability.”
Shah plans to spend the 20th anniversary of 9/11 exercising one of the rights he fought for – peaceful protest. He’ll be outside the Capitol as part of a rally, calling on Congress to repeal a war powers measure that gave wide-ranging authorities to the president after 9/11. The 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force allowed former President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.
“Let’s pull it back and let Congress reassert its war powers authority as defined in the Constitution so that no future president can put us in this kind of intractable conflict again,” Shah said.
Capt. Eron Lindsey
After being kicked out of the military as a 17-year-old, Eron Lindsey fought to have his record cleared so he could join again – this time at age 31.
It was 1988 when Lindsey joined the Army the first time, and he had a “problem with authority,” he said. He was kicked out by 1989 and given an other-than-honorable discharge. For 14 years, he went on with his life. He worked on fishing boats in Alaska and eventually settled down with his wife and kids in Tampa.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lindsey was working a sales job. He and his coworkers watched the breaking news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, but their employer told them to get back to making sales calls.
“I was so mad. I was so beside myself,” he said.
Lindsey went to a military recruiting office that day to reenlist. He was told, however, his discharge status made him ineligible. During the following 18 months, Lindsey attempted to upgrade his discharge.
He first submitted a packet to the Army Discharge Review Board but was denied. He appealed and flew from Tampa to Washington, D.C., for the proceedings.
“I told the board what I had been doing over the last 14 years, and I told them I was beside myself that we’d been attacked,” Lindsey said. “I said I still had a lot to give.”
The board approved Lindsey’s upgrade, and he immediately joined the Florida National Guard. He wanted desperately to deploy to Afghanistan, and his unit wasn’t getting called up, he said.
“I was going through the phone book calling National Guard armories and saying, ‘Hey guys, are you going?’” Lindsey said. “I finally got ahold of a unit in the Iowa National Guard that was deploying, and I said, ‘Do you need one more?’ They said they did.”
Lindsey moved his family to Iowa and deployed to Afghanistan months later. When he returned, he worked as a recruiter for five years and then commissioned as an officer. He deployed again to Afghanistan in 2011 with the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
He’s made a career out of the military and is now a captain, working as a full-time logistics officer at Fort Bragg, N.C. Lindsey plans to stay in the Army for the foreseeable future.
“This is where I found my purpose,” he said. “I know there are different opinions out there, but the military has taken care of me and allowed me to provide a quality of life for my family that I probably couldn’t have found just being me outside of the military.”
The past few weeks were difficult for Lindsey, watching the U.S. military withdraw from Afghanistan. The day the Taliban took control of Kabul and overthrew the Afghan government, Lindsey made a visit to his staff chaplain.
Part of the difficulty, he said, was he’s lost more soldiers to suicide since the deployments than were killed overseas in harm’s way.
“It was a rough day for me,” Lindsey said. “It’s not my job to figure out if it was worth it, but do I have feelings about what happened in Afghanistan? I do.”
Capt. Jon Young
After the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon and another crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, the administration at a Catholic High School in Lancaster, Pa., gathered the student body for a school-wide assembly to discuss what had happened.
Sitting among the other students was Jon Young, a senior who had been considering a military career. In that moment, he became certain it was his path forward.
“I pretty quickly came to a decision about what I was going to do,” Young said. “That I was going to pursue a military career.”
Young accepted an Air Force ROTC scholarship to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, he was immersed in the political aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Now 20 years later, he remembers thinking back then that it was going to be a “big fight that would go on for a long time.” He wanted to be a leader that would get his people home safely.
“I remember thinking that whatever was going to happen, there were going to be a lot of young people that were sent overseas to fight, and I wanted them to have good leadership,” Young said.
During his military career, Young served as an intelligence officer, and he deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. He operated MQ-1b Predators, a remotely piloted aircraft, and provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to special operations forces as they conducted raids against al-Qaida and Taliban targets.
There was competition among drone operators to be part of the missions against high-priority targets, with pilots vying to be on the flying schedule even on their days off. The 3d Special Operations Squadron, of which Young was part, also had a staffing problem. There was “explosive growth” in the use of drones, he said, and Young was flying 60 hours per week for more than three years.
During his career, he was involved in 135 direct-action raids, and he didn’t lose a single service member on any of them, he said.
“That was my mission, from start to finish, was to know the most, do the most, try the hardest to be the guy who’s watching everyone’s back,” he said.
Young, now 37, separated from the military in 2010 and entered law school at the University of Virginia. He now works as an attorney in Atlanta.
Young said he is proud of his military service, and he wouldn’t change a single decision he made. However, it was “heartbreaking” to watch as the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban reassert control in August, he said.
“I don’t regret my role in the war or my service,” Young said. “We had a noble mission in Afghanistan – bringing justice to al-Qaida and removing terrorist enablers in the Taliban, protecting women and religious and ethnic minorities from arbitrary violence, helping to rebuild a society damaged by 20 years of invasion and civil war – and we achieved some of those goals.”
Despite the U.S. military’s best efforts and all the sacrifices made, the conflict was like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, Young described.
“It just seemed like it was not changing,” he said. “We just couldn’t move it.”
Seaman Sophia-Helene Mees de Tricht
Anger, sadness and confusion is what Sophia-Helene Mees de Tricht remembers feeling on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, while she and the rest of her high school civics class watched the terrorist attacks on a television in her school library.
“Most people my age had no idea about geopolitics or terrorism,” Mees de Tricht said. “We all grew up really fast.”
Mees de Tricht was a 17-year-old in Knoxville, Tenn., on 9/11, and her family had a long military history. Her lineage almost entirely consisted of pastors and soldiers. America was still sorting through the emotional and physical rubble of the terrorist attacks when Mees de Tricht received a call from a Marine Corps recruiting officer.
She didn’t want to join the Marines, she said, but she sought out a Navy recruiter. Two weeks after 9/11, she was in a recruitment office with her parents, signing the enlistment paperwork. She finished her senior year of high school nine months later and entered the Navy.
“I was angry, and I felt like I needed to do something,” Mees de Tricht said.
During her military service, she was part of counter-narcotics operations and humanitarian aid missions. She served aboard the USS Boxer, an amphibious warship, during a deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2007.
Mees de Tricht entered the military wanting to be part of the fight against al-Qaida, but she became jaded fairly quickly, she said.
“I never really felt like I was doing what I joined to do,” she said.
She left the Navy after eight years, and then joined the Coast Guard. In 2012, Mees de Tricht was discharged from the Coast Guard for being transgender. At the time, there was a blanket ban on all transgender people from serving or enlisting in the U.S. military.
That ban has since been eradicated. As of Jan. 6, 2021, there are no restrictions on military service for transgender people, and medical care for transitioning service members is provided by the U.S. government.
Mees de Tricht remains the only Coast Guard member to be medically discharged because of the transgender ban. She said the action “started a conversation,” and she’s since become an advocate for transgender troops.
Now 37 and living near Des Moines, Iowa, Mees de Tricht is also an organizer with Common Defense, a liberal advocacy group led by veterans. For the past several years, the group’s main mission was to lobby for an end to the war in Afghanistan.
She wanted to see U.S. forces withdraw from the country but watching how it happened during the last several weeks was difficult, Mees de Tricht said.
Mees de Tricht is now using her platform to join the effort in holding President Joe Biden’s administration accountable for the promises he made to help Afghan allies and get all Americans out of Afghanistan.
“I’ve put a lot of effort into ending these wars, and to see them end in the way they did … it’s just poorly managed,” she said. “Ending these wars was the right thing to do, straight up, but it could have been done better.”