It has been sixteen years since the events of September 11, 2001. That fateful day prompted the nation into action, and within two years the United States was involved in two conflicts in the Middle East, participating in what has been termed “the Global War on Terrorism.”
With the sudden attacks on the nation, some Wisconsinites who were already in the service saw their entire world turned upside down. Michelle Rasmusson had gotten back from a deployment to Kosovo in March of 2001. As a reservist, she was just settling into a new job and a regular schedule when 9/11 took place. In her oral history interview, Rasmusson recalls her immediate reactions to the attacks and remembers her visit to New York City just a few days prior to 9/11.
9/11 happened within a few months of me getting back from Kosovo, or within that year. I’m thinking, “Okay, I’ve been back just about a year and now I’m going to deploy again, okay, I just got a job, great.” And we were put on call, right after 9/11, and I remember our unit, people volunteering for our unit to go over—“What can we do?”
I was actually in New York a couple days before 9/11. One of the girls that I worked with said, “Hey, my dad works for the airport. We can take a couple first class tickets—we can fly over there for the weekend, go over there for four days, and we’ll come back,” and she had her sights set on seeing the towers. And I was like, “What are we doing?” We walked, like, it must have been twenty, thirty, blocks it seemed like to see these towers, and it’s like, “You walked me all the way here to see these Twin Towers, and you walk downstairs, and you go upstairs.” And, you’re like, “Okay,” and you snap some pictures.
And then, you know, back to work that next week. Eight o’clock in the morning, we’re sitting next to each other…and watching the Towers go down, and walking into Walgreens the next day to get those pictures developed, and almost shaking…You can see the people around them, you can see the big yellow-bronze ball in front, and just to see it destroyed, and, I think that’s when it kind of clicked that the other part of my training was probably going to get called on sooner rather than later.
Rasmusson’s unit was one of the first deployed to Iraq in 2003.
For some Wisconsin veterans, the events of September 11th encouraged them to rejoin the Armed Services. John Samuels had been a Captain in the Marine Corp, discharged in 1990. In his oral history interview, he describes his experiences on 9/11 and the circumstances that led to him getting commissioned as a Captain of Infantry in the Army National Guard in 2006.
Then the country was attacked on September 11, 2001. When 9/11 hit, I was working nights at the time, I had just gotten home from taking the kids to school, my wife was at work, you know, I was getting ready to crawl into bed. She telephoned and she said, “Yeah, a plane flew into the World Trade Center.” Okay, that’s weird, so I turned on the TV, just in time to see the second one hit, I was still on the phone with her, I said, “This is no accident, this is terrorism. I’m gonna be busy tonight, I gotta go to sleep.”
Being from New York, it really bothered me that New York was hit, but then also the Pentagon was hit. And then the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. I consider that the first counter-attack, in the war. And on September 13, Marita, my wife, sent me an email: “I support you, I know this is what you wanna do. I hope it helps.” And it was the paperwork to fill out to try to get my commission back in the Marine Corps Reserve. And I thought, “Yeah, you know, I can run a reserve center just as well as the young guy can.” I’m 38 right now but I can run the reserve center. Let that 28-year-old Captain go off and fight. So I telephoned the Marine Corps…and finally I got to talk with a gunney sergeant, and we talked back and for a bit and I said, “So basically what you’re telling me is, I’m a 38-year-old Infantry Captain who’s been out for 11 years, and you’ve got 28-year-old Infantry Captains who’ve been out 11 months and it’s the same amount of work but it’s easier to get them.” He said, “I’m not saying that sir, but I’m not gonna say you’re wrong.” I said, “Thank you very much.” And I thought, well, I tried. Tried to do my part.
Time went on and then in 2005 I learned that the Army increased the maximum age if you wanted to join one of the Reserve components IF you had prior military service…So I started looking into that. You know, initially, when 9/11 happened it was 2 days later my wife is, “I’m in full support of you.” This time it was a 3 month ongoing conversation when one day she came into the den…She said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about our discussion. And there are families that do it full time, there are others that do it part time and I think we can do it too…If you wanna go, go for it.”…So [I] finally got commissioned to Captain of Infantry in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. And I was assigned to the 332nd Support Center in Berlin, Wisconsin.
Between 2007 and 2011 Samuels was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
After September 11, still more Wisconsinites were inspired to join the military for the first time, at least in part because of the impact that day had on them. Danny Xiong enlisted in the Marines in 2008. In his oral history interview, Xiong was asked what factors led him to enlist.
I guess you could say it was my surroundings. Getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Being more ambitious, wanting to do something different. Not wanting to be “stuck” as you could say. And then, with the benefits of the military and remembering being a junior and watching the Twin Towers and everything, it just kind of stuck in me. I was just like, “Well, I should probably go.” So that’s why I went.
Xiong was deployed to Afghanistan in the Spring of 2010.
As the conflict continues in Afghanistan, there are Wisconsin men and women serving in the Middle East who were just toddlers on September 11, 2001. Depending on how long the conflict continues, there may be Wisconsin men and women who serve in Afghanistan who weren’t even born on September 11, 2001.
To hear more from veterans who have served in Afghanistan, check out our new Featured Interviews project, “Voices from Afghanistan.”
All the stories in this post come from oral histories done with the veterans. Some text has been edited for clarity.