Recruits’ reasons for enlisting evolve as Afghan war grinds on
Those who enlist in the Marines now do so for reasons apart from the 9/11 attacks.
A day after hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center towers, tore into the Pentagon and cratered a Pennsylvania field, thousands of babies were born in the United States.
They emerged from the womb on Sept. 12, 2001, as hospital televisions were tuned to smoldering rubble, and they grew alongside the subsequent war against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Wednesday marked a new era for the war in Afghanistan and the young people who make up the bulk of enlistees. It was the first day someone born after the terrorist attacks can enlist, at age 17, and begin a path to serve in the seemingly endless war launched in response to those attacks.
Troops were once partially motivated to enlist because of the attacks; now, 17 years later, the unfinished war grows further from events that created it.
The dividing line between troops who enlisted before and after Sept. 11 was initially stark, veterans have said.
Brandon Friedman was commissioned in the peacetime Army of 2000, and took over an infantry platoon five days after the attacks.
He later led them in Afghanistan in 2002. Those men had all enlisted before the attacks, he said, and had joined for a number of reasons — to test their mettle, earn college benefits or maybe to escape dim prospects at home.
But the replacements he received by 2003, who had all enlisted in the wake of Sept. 11, said they joined for different reasons.
“It was a galvanizing time,” he said.
About 5.5 million troops have served since Sept. 11, and nearly 7,000 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Kayla Williams, a former Army linguist, was in Arabic class during the attacks. Like Friedman, she later met recruits newly inspired to fight. In recent years, however, enlistees are less likely to say Sept. 11 played a role in their decision to join the military, said Williams, now director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Pentagon data show an 8 percent surge in the propensity for young men to enlist right after the attacks, continuing through 2005.
Now, recruits report motivations that mirror those of their pre-9/11 forebears; they join to pursue adventure, secure benefits or are drawn to aspects of honor, Williams said.
Jon Gillis was in fifth grade on Sept. 11, and his friends had parents in the Pentagon during the attacks. But that was not a specific driver, he said.
Gillis enlisted as a college graduate in 2013 after becoming close with a Marine veteran.
He entered a Corps in transition, where Marines hoped for combat rotations and were dismayed by dwindling chances to fight in Afghanistan, as their leaders had. Gillis deployed to Romania instead.
He left active duty last year as 18-year-olds arrived at his unit. Barracks talk focused on the generational gaps, he said, with Sept. 11 as the reference point. “They know it happened, but there is no memory attached to it,” Gillis said of the younger Marines.