The strangest thing about coming for home for Thanksgiving break after 9/11 was seeing an American flag flying outside every house. People were walking up to me and thanking me for my service, which I found unsettling. The tiny suburb, just north of New York City, lost dozens of people in the attack on the World Trade Center, and it had shaken the residents to their very cores.
I unceremoniously joined the Army’s ROTC program in the waning years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, with little fanfare and a common understanding among most of the cadre and cadets that we wouldn’t have a whole lot to do once we were in the “real” Army. 9/11 changed that dynamic instantaneously; we realized that what we had signed up for was about to become very, very real. Our military science instructor, who was a good guy but hadn’t taught us all that much, was replaced by a Captain who was much more capable. Training and field exercises had gone from glorified camping trips to serious affairs, with the cadre constantly reminding us that “you better pay attention to this, because you will be leading men in combat.”
9/11 occurred at the beginning of my junior year, but by the beginning of my senior year in 2002 things had slowed. Afghanistan had disappeared from the news cycle, and some of us breathed a sigh of relief as life had mostly returned to normal. I figured the majority of my class would spend their careers as junior officers cleaning up whatever mess was left in Afghanistan, while I would spend my first twelve months in the “real” Army on the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
And then Iraq started popping up in the news cycle. A few mentions at first, and then a steady drumbeat of information pointing to the fact that we were preparing for a full scale invasion. My suitemates all tuned in to watch Baghdad being blown apart on CNN as part of the “Shock and Awe” campaign. I turned to one of my suitemates, who was also in my ROTC class, and said “dude, we’re going to war.” With approximately one month to go before we commissioned as 2nd LT’s, it became very clear what the future had in store for us.
Several months later, while sitting in a classroom at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, I was learning how to plan artillery strikes against Russian tank columns and mechanized infantry. By this time we had all heard the reports of a growing insurgency and the threat of IED’s from the first batch of officers that had returned from the initial push into Baghdad.
“Sir,” one of the lieutenants said as he raised his hand. “I don’t understand. Why are we learning about Russian armored columns? How many tanks do the Iraqis have left?”
“None,” the Captain (who was a veteran of the first push into Baghdad) replied. “We blew them all up.”
“So why are we learning this, sir?”
“Well LT,” the Captain replied, “we have to teach you something, now don’t we?”
Training and doctrine hadn’t caught up with the reality on the battlefield, so it would be up to our individual units to prepare us for the realities of what we would be facing. The way that the Army prepared its Soldiers to fight and win the wars we were expected to fight was getting ready to change, and we were in the middle of that transformation.
I served one tour in Iraq in 2006, well into the establishment of the insurgency and just as the attacks began to escalate. Our company installed a tactical fiber optic network, a mission we weren’t originally equipped or trained for, but needed to be done, so we took the job. Much like training and doctrine, the Army had started replacing antiquated signal equipment with more modern technologies in an attempt to keep up with the changing pace of the new battlefield.
I served five years in total, with the vast majority of my time overseas. Most of my friends have also gotten out, all of us with at least one combat tour under our belts. The ones that are still left are senior Captains and are looking at promotion to Major and entering the “adult” phase of their military careers.
The Army is lucky to have seasoned officers like my friends who have stayed; they’ve all lived through numerous combat tours a period of serious upheaval within the military. There’s been a fundamental shift in who we are, where we fit into society, and what is expected of today’s military. Whether you agree or disagree with the “Global War on Terror,” it has been a huge catalyst for change, both for the military and for the country as a whole. Whether this change has been for or better or worse…we’ll just have to wait and see.