I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the September 11 attacks occurred, just like every other American. I was sleeping on a couch and woke up early for no reason at all. I turned on the television and started to watch the news, since that was the only program on that early in the morning. Soon news broke about the attack. I sat there for hours absorbing the tragedy that was unfolding in front of me. I was horrified.
But, as time progressed and the details of the attack were made public, I became more ambivalent about the entire situation. Since I lived just outside of Seattle, the tragedy turned into something impersonal by proximity. I was far removed from the actual destruction and death, so eventually the media coverage made it seem unreal. 9/11 just signified an event. Yes, a tragic event, but in my mind that tragedy was only a fleeting memory when the anniversary of 9/11 arrived. I really had no interest or feelings about it.
When I was 24, I decided I wanted an education, so that I could become something more than what my present path held for me. Up until this time, I had no internal compass guiding my life — I was just drifting aimlessly. I applied to film school and was accepted, but the cost of attending was astronomical, and with no parental help, I had to rely solely on financial aid. This emphasis on education changed the trajectory of my life. I made a deal with myself that if I didn’t get enough money for school, then I would join the Army and get it that way. Needless to say, my financial aid was insufficient, and within four weeks, I was off to basic training at Fort Knox.
9/11 played no part in my decision to join the Army — all I wanted was a better life. I had no illusions that it was my duty to fight because the country had been attacked, nor any notions that I wanted some sort of patriotic glory. None of these thoughts entered my mind, even when my drill sergeants were constantly reminding us that we would be deployed, we would see combat, and 9/11 was the flash point to the predicament we would find ourselves in. I still never thought of 9/11 as my reason to fight — I never really thought about fighting at all. This may sound strange to some — it even sounds rather weird to me now — but I was too focused on my needs and goals.
Just like me, a lot of people who join the military are looking for upward mobility, a way in which to advance themselves in society. In all of my training, basic and combat medic school, most people I met joined for education benefits, job training or to escape poverty. There were only a few who joined because of 9/11. I used to feel almost ashamed when a civilian would thank me for serving in the Army because it wasn’t me who was serving: It was the Army who was serving me.
In basic training, the drill sergeants are always trying find some way to punish you through physical exertion. One day, after about eight hours of rigorous training, my drill sergeant brought us into the woods where it was cool, allowed us to sit down and proceeded to ask people why they joined the Army. This was a clever trap.
The drill sergeant was waiting for someone to relax and fall. But before that eventually happened, I heard the story of a man in his mid-thirties who was from the U.S. Virgin Islands. His last name was “Smith,” and he proceeded to tell a story that humbled me and made me feel guilty for joining the Army under my selfish pretenses. “Smith” had a wife and three kids, and he used to work for a huge casino where he was head of security. He said he made over $100,000 a year doing this, but once the 9/11 attacks happened, he felt it was his duty to join the Army and do his part. I was astonished that a man with a family to support and responsibilities would have made such a dramatic decision. He had convictions, a moral code, a sense of duty and was unselfish.
This made an impact on me, and while serving, it brought 9/11 from the recesses of my mind to a place where I at least acknowledged it for what it signified. With me being a combat medic, I was always helping soldiers with their medical out-processing so they could deploy, and when I knew they were going to Afghanistan, I always thought of 9/11 as the reason this person was being sent away. I kept my ideological thoughts to myself and knew these men and women were doing what they were trained to do: fulfill their duty.
So ten years later, I see 9/11 as a tragic event in our country’s history. It’s the men and women who perished on 9/11 along with those who have or are still fighting that should be remembered, and it is because of 9/11 that these people have lost something.
Jason McGill is a U.S. Army veteran and senior at UC Berkeley.