Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began normally, like most tragic days.
I was a senior in high school then, living in a quiet Detroit suburb.
Up to that morning, I had no recollection of the name Osama bin Laden. I knew something of his various attacks: the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
But to a 17-year-old who had only flirted with the idea of joining the military, bin Laden’s name was too long and too foreign to remember, and he lived in a country too far away for me to care.
Near the end of my morning physics class, my teacher turned on the radio. There was chatter throughout the school of a plane accidentally flying into one of the buildings in New York. But through the static of the AM news station, we realized the magnitude of what actually happened.
In the days and months after 9/11, men and women of all ages lined up outside military recruitment offices. I was anxious to join them. But only 17, my parents wouldn’t sign the waiver allowing me to enlist. And even when I turned 18, my parents convinced me to graduate first. So I watched the Afghanistan war from my living room.
I graduated in May 2002, and by August, I was at Fort Benning, Ga., training with a platoon of mostly recent high-school graduates who enlisted in the Army to be paratroopers.
They’d call us the 9/11 generation of veterans. But, looking back, we were boys caught up in a mess much bigger than us, and that started well before 2001.
On the other side of the world and more than four years later, I was in Tal Afar, Iraq. My squad hid in one of the dusty city’s dark alleys and waited for the explosives we set to blow open an insurgent’s front door. After the blast, we’d arrest a man who hid bomb-making materials in the yard of his other home.
This type of mission was nothing new to me. I was now on my third Iraq tour.
In March 2003, I was with the 82nd Airborne. Advancing north, we stopped to clear cities along the way, fighting large battles and small skirmishes. We were in Baghdad by May, feeling proud of how quickly we toppled the Saddam Hussein regime. We showed off our spoils of war to one another: Iraqi gas masks, bayonets, helmets and flags. I had chiseled a sculpture of Hussein’s face out of the wall of one the Baath Party’s headquarters.
But by June, gasoline and employment riots engulfed Baghdad, and the insurgency, under the fog of chaos, strengthened its ranks. The lull in violence passed. And with each fellow soldier killed, hatred toward Iraqis dug deeper, and we still chased an elusive insurgency that seemed to be growing.
Fast-forward ahead to that alley in Tal Afar my third and final tour. The insurgent whose door we blew in was an older man with a round face and a dark mustache with hints of white embedded within it. Like we had done to many other insurgents, we tied his hands and blindfolded him. His children cried out to him. His wife attempted to calm them while holding back tears herself.
I remembered a time when that would affect me.
As the sun rose the next morning, it was my shift to guard the insurgent. Sleep-deprived and looking defeated, he said he was ready to talk. I told my captain of the insurgent’s decision and walked back outside. The insurgent squatted in the dark, make-shift cell, hanging his head low. He spoke English fairly well, and before the captain emerged from his quarters, I spoke with him.
Only weeks away from leaving Iraq and six months away from the end of my enlistment, I knew the insurgent would be the last I’d see. So I asked him why he attacked us.
“Because you are here,” he said pointing toward the ground with his cuffed hands. To him, we were invaders.
“Why are you here?” he asked me.
I remembered when I joined, it was for a good cause. But the weapons of mass destruction? No, we never found them. To fight terrorists? Al-Qaida wasn’t in Iraq until after we arrived. To spread Democracy? Two elections later, we were still there. Nothing fit, even the very reason I enlisted — the radio broadcast I heard on 9/11 and the fear and anger it invoked.
Then I remembered, from my first tour, the poor Iraqis living south of Baghdad along the Tigris River. With nothing to live for, they were a haven for insurgent recruiters. I thought about Muslim widows I’d seen who were willing to blow themselves up in vengeance for the death of their husbands.
And I remembered a Syrian sniper we’d captured who pleaded to God for forsaking him. They were coming from all over to fight what they thought was a holy war in Iraq.
We all had been pulled into war.
When the captain emerged, I left the insurgent without answering.
A month later, I left Iraq never to return.
On May 2, 2011, I was a senior in college when President Barack Obama announced bin Laden was killed. But I didn’t join the glee of tweets, text messages or celebrations in city squares.
I sat quietly because from my experiences in Iraq, I learned 9/11 was not caused by one man or one thousand Muslims. Both the attack and the Iraq invasion were caused by man’s ability to manipulate the suffering and the anger felt by those who would become their followers.
Robert Guttersohn is a staff writer for The Vindicator and formerly was a sergeant of the airborne infantry.