Some service men and women in the military right now weren’t born at the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001, but for high school students and recent graduates in 2001, the attack sent shockwaves across the country and awakened a passion inside them to do something for their country.
“It was our Pearl Harbor, you know, it was our moment to you know, stand up and do our thing,” said Ohio Army National Guard veteran Tyler Gangwer.
Gangwer was a senior at Amelia High School and recalls teachers letting out little information regarding the attacks. He said he’d pass by and see teachers watching news coverage but the gravity of what happened didn't occur to him immediately.
“As the days go kept going on, and more and more of the story actually developed, you know, you get angry,” Gangwer said. “I come from a long line of guys that serve in the military, Vietnam, World War II, Korea, and it was just kind of like, kind of the cards falling together. Looks like it was time to do something about it.”
He joined the Ohio Army National Guard along with some of his fellow classmates and was part of a growing crowd of young men and women who had the desire to take the fight to the doorsteps of those behind the attacks.
“The attack definitely motivates you to, to want to get in there,” Gangwer said. “I didn't wanna sit on the sidelines in uniform and watch the fight go down. I wanted to be involved in the fight.”
He spent a total of 27 months in Afghanistan: A 12-month and 15-month deployment with a break in between. His work garnered him an Army Commendation Medal with Valor, Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart. Those deployments also meant the loss of his friends and fellow soldiers.
In the end he says his desire to leave came down to battle fatigue.
“I look back on my service. I look back at my brothers. And the guys, we left there, you know, the guys I still stay in touch with on a daily basis,” he said.
When he joined the military, he said he couldn’t imagine a war that would go on for two decades and ultimately end with the Taliban back in control.
“I'm not even going to begin to get into the whole 'wasn't worth it' thing," he said. "Because I think if you look at everything, you know, I look at any conflicts from like, the whole big picture of it. I mean, can you really say any of them were really worth it other than maybe World War II?”
He said the timeline of the war in Afghanistan is something he’s still processing and blames the length of the war on what he calls "mission creep," which is defined as a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.
“We’d clearly taken the Taliban out of power," Gangwer said. "And we clearly destabilized al Qaeda, its ability to seek sanctuary, and then we had clearly killed Bin Laden. I mean, those are your three major, you know, mission statements for the entire war.”
But despite reaching those goals the war continued. Gangwer was one of 254,000 who joined the military in the 12 months following the attacks, according to the Department of Defense data.
The war on terrorism would claim more than 7,000 U.S. men and women in uniform and set up a devastating fight on the home front regarding the mental health of those returning home and dealing with the affects of the war.
A Brown University study found more than 30,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide. It’s a number that continues to grow by the day.
Gangwer said he knows veterans who’ve fought the new internal war here at home. While his passion to fight for his country and defend it drew him to military service, he’s conflicted now that things have come to an end.
“We've got to come to grips in this country with conflict, you know, this is, what, two major conflicts now, thousands of Americans dead," he said. "And God knows how many trillions of dollars between both conflicts and we were achieving nothing, you know, and that's the issue. It wasn't for nothing. What it was for I, I haven't really gotten to that maturity yet, or been able to really unpack things and kind of process it enough yet.”
He said the one thing he does know is that for 20 years the United States took the fight to the terrorists, disrupting their operations while keeping the home front safe.
“We haven't been attacked. That's a big thing,” he said. “We took the fight to them and for 20 years, we haven't had a major terrorist attack.”