The children of 9/11 on the frontline

Eight years ago they were boys, now they're fighting in Afghanistan
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The Independent US

Eight years ago today 2,974 people died in the September 11 attacks. It led the western world into a war on terror that British and American soldiers are still battling out today. Many of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, now stationed in the US Marines’ most remote outpost in Helmand, Afghanistan, were just children when the World Trade Center was attacked - but they still remember where they were.

  Lance Corporal Kody Torok, 19, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USMC)

Kody Torok had just turned 11 when the school principal came into class to explain that the Twin Towers had been hit in a terrorist attack.

"I didn't really understand the magnitude of it. I had never heard of the World Trade Center and definitely didn’t know where Afghanistan was. I just remember the parents starting to pull other kids out of school. I went home and watched the news."

But from that day, he insisted, he knew he was gong to join up, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who served as a Marine in World War II. At 17, he signed up.

"The whole day of September 11 I wanted to defend my country. I wished I was older so I could go and join. I still remember it. I think of it every time we go out on patrol.

"It is good to come out here and fight people who are associated with the people who masterminded the attacks. It makes me feel good."

But he said he saw a wide division between those that had been firing at them almost every day for the past two months and those who were simply trying to survive in this lethal environment.

"We are here to help these people, so that their little kids can walk around safely."

  Private First Class Janos Lutz, 21, Davie, Florida (USMC)

Janos Lutz can remember the television images of Afghans cheering the attacks on the World Trade Center when he was a 13-year-old boy.

"I always wanted to join the military but that pretty much set it in stone. It makes it a little bit personal, especially today. I hope we get into a pretty big fight."

A youngster with a passion for the history channel, he already knew not only of Afghanistan but the Taliban when the attack happened.

"I remember New York a few months afterwards. It was very, very weird. There were National Guardsmen in fatigues. It felt like martial law."

Like many of his fellow young Marines he insisted that day still remained in their mind but not as keenly as the loss of a close friend, Lance Corporal Charles "Seth" Sharp, killed on 2nd July.

"All the mortars on the 3rd July said For Sharp. We still talk about September 11, about where we were. But you fight for your friend. And we fight so the people round here can have their lives back. I don’t think the people back home get it at all."

  Specialist Rabmal Sadal, 23, Santa Maria, California (US Army)

Rabmal Sadal was brought us as a child in Afghanistan and says he will always remember landing back at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, on 3 May 2009.

"I remember it was 2am and I wrote in my diary 'My first day back'. When the sun rose on the mountains covered in snow. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. My parents had told me stories about Afghanistan, about the mountains and it was breath taking. I will never forget it."

Born in Kabul, his family moved to California when he was a small child and September 11 had a dramatic personal impact.

"Two towns over from where I lived there was an Indian guy who got shot at a 7-11 (store) and killed. He wasn’t even a Muslim. I got into a couple of fights at school. My mum took me out of school for a couple of months. We stayed at home."

Today, he said he is proud to be the Pashtu speaker for the Marines, their "eyes and ears", as his family more than most understand the cruelty of the Taliban.

He also has an even greater sympathy for the local people and a drive to create a peaceful world for them.

A proud American, his deployment has nevertheless engendered feelings of returning to his roots.

"I see the food and it is something I would eat at home. They make the bread the same way my Mom would make it except she makes it in a modern oven."

  Lance Corporal Joshua Apsey, 19, Tampa, Florida (USMC)

Joshua Apsey had just turned 11 when he watched Air Force One, taking President George Bush, from Sarasota to Washington on 11 September 2001, pass above the playground at Progress Village Middle School.

"I saw a clip of the Marines training. People were saying it was the best option to send in the Marines. It looked pretty cool and exciting. That’s when I decided I was going to join. The day I turned 17 I swore in."

"At first it was all about glory and respect. It didn’t take long for that to go away. Now it is all about family and making sure the people around you have happy lives."

The son of a police officer, who had enjoyed a pretty shielded upbringing, his only knowledge of war was watching films and video games with his best friend. Today they are both mortar men serving in Combat Operating Post Sharp in Afghanistan.

"I don’t really think about September 11. To be honest sometimes I have no idea why we are here and other times I know it is to help the people. In America we have this feeling, this calling to police the world. We feel it is our job. I can understand that. I can see why we are here to help people."

  Lance Corporal Nicholas Elliott, 20, Columbus, Ohio (USMC)

Twelve-year-old Nicholas Elliott remembers his band teacher at Dublin Sciota High School telling him the about the attack.

"I didn't know what the World Trade Center was. In seventh grade I had no idea I would end up here. In seventh grade I was more worried about what the girls thought about me than anything else."

But throughout his childhood, the legacy of September 11 2001 resonated. Having settled on a military career at 15, he joined up two years later. But his parents refused to co-sign his application if he joined the infantry so he became a radio operator.

"There were a few guys buried in the cemetery in my town and at school we would have a big assembly each year to recap on what happened. My mom had a friend in the Pentagon, a few offices from where they got hit. He survived but it was close."

That day may be a distant and fading memory but it still provides the simplest answer as to why he is in Afghanistan.

"It seems like so long ago but I just know why I am here. It means more that I am over here and I am actually fighting for what happened."

  Petty Officer 3rd Class Sam 'Doc' Walters, 21, Seattle, Washington (US Navy)

For Sam Walters it is a tragedy closer to home that drives him forward. When Lance Corporal Charles "Seth" Sharp, a 20-year-old from Georgia known for his irrepressible sense of humour, was shot in the neck on the day the Marines landed in Mian Poshtay – the most southern outpost in Helmand, it was Hospital Corpsman Walters who tried in vain to save his life.

"I was one of the last people to treat him. When he died I carried his body on to the chopper. It is not that I do not think about September 11 but when I feel aggression that's not the thing that comes to mind."

Sam Walters was the son of an American father and Greek mother growing up in Thessalonika when the United States was hit by its worst terrorist attack. At school he received sympathy from some as well as gloating from those who believed America had it coming.

At the age of 19, he moved to the United States and signed up. "September 11 is one of the reasons I joined up but not specifically. I was American and I couldn't express that."

Today, he insists he has a greater understanding of why he is in Afghanistan, it is less about revenge and more about driving the Taliban and following in his forefathers footsteps - from Gettysburg to Fallujah.

Nevertheless, he explained: "There are those who want to get back at those who did it. It is not a very educated or very modern point of view but it is primeval. You can't help it. After somebody hits me I am going to hit him back."

  Lance Corporal Edgar Maza Machado, 22, Miami, Florida (USMC)

Originally from Columbia, Edgar Maza Machado admits to a real sympathy for the Afghans in this remote part of Helmand.

"Columbia is a beautiful place but there are a few ugly people who make it miserable. I look at Afghanistan and think it is a good place but some times the enemy makes it miserable. The first day we landed, 2 July, I looked down on the vegetation and the villages and thought this is actually a beautiful place. A couple of hours later there were gun shots. I thought 'They have got to go, they have got to go'."

Aged 14, L/Cpl Machado remembers the silence in his school the day of September 11, the fear of those who had family and friends in New York and the fact that his neighborhood streets, normally full of children playing basketball, were deserted.

"Noone was outside that day playing. Everyone was focused on the news, sitting in doors trying to make sense of the situation."

Today he insisted he would find some time to reflect on the events of that day.

"Some people feel sad, some people feel angry. My mood every time that the anniversary comes round is that I am just quiet. It still gets to me, the stupidity of people. It was one of the reasons I joined up. That and making something out of myself," explained the young man who dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Now renown in Echo company as their fastest mortar man, he said: "When we were in Iraq, I was thinking why are we here. I was confused. But Afghanistan makes a lot more sense."

  Lance Corporal Mathew Price, 21, Springville, Alabama (USMC)

The fear and terror he saw on September 11 2001 and the worry of a friend whose father worked in the Pentagon, instilled in 13-year-old Mathew Price a life long hatred of terrorists.

"That's the whole reason we are here. When people say it sucks here, it is miserable, it is bullshit, I always take time to remember that. When I am bummed out or depressed, I remember why we are doing this. They hit us first, it is pay back."

He said he felt a strong sense of protecting family and friends back home.

"They hit us on American soil. We fight them over here. We choke them out, don't give them - al-Qa'ida or the Taliban - any room to breathe, put pressure on them so they cannot push out and expand. We will take the hit and let our families and friends back home stay safe. We keep the war on their land. If we sat back and did nothing, I don't doubt they would attack us."

But he said he had taken on board the complexity of the fact that, as well as targeting the Taliban, his job was to help the local people.

"Sometimes it is hard. We are here to help but you look at somebody and you don't know if three hours later he is the one shooting at you or if he is just a man trying to raise a family and grow his crops. It is hard deciphering the enemy from the local."

  First Lieutenant Ted Hubbard, 25, Rye, New York (USMC)

A boarding school pupil on 11 September 2001, Ted Hubbard spent the whole day trying to find out if his family was safe.

"I felt I should have been there to help out but I was only 17 at the time. I was always patriotic but it certainly pushed me to join the military. At the back of my mind we are at war and I felt it was necessary to participate."

Far more than revenge, his job he said was to prevent a repeat of that day.

"It is not retaliation but preventing something like that happening again, to make Afghanistan for the people, to give them education and health care and a normal life so that their children have an option rather than becoming a terrorist."

He said he understood why many Americans were weary of seeing young men dying in wars abroad but felt strongly that if they gave up, it would come back to haunt them.

"We are Marines and it is our job. If they want to attack me that’s fine. I have a big support system, I have a gun. When they go after civilians that is unacceptable. That's why we don’t go after civilians."

He insisted his battle was with the Taliban, not the locals that inhabit this remote, agricultural area.

"I have no resentment to the local people. They are just poor people hoping to live their lives just like people on September 11 wanted to live their lives. People here had nothing to do with it. I am sure they have never heard of the World Trade Center."

  Corporal Andrew Bryant, 21, Syracuse, New York (USMC)

As a New Yorker, Andrew Bryant felt the full force of the impact of September 11, the girls crying in his class and those who had families up in the city. For two weeks his school remained shut as local people volunteered to help out with the relief effort.

"I got home and my Mom was watching TV and crying really hard. Three friends had family at the World Trade Center. A guy in my class, his uncle died."

A lot of his friends, he explained, now had commemorative tattoos portraying the Twin Towers with flags and banners.

"Now I think the patriotism has died. People just want to get out of here. I think they have forgotten the anger and grief of 9/11. I wish they could see how real it is out here."

Taking the fight to the Taliban, he said, had given him a sense of relief.

"I am sure everybody back home will be thinking about it. My fiancée will see it on TV and think about the connection of me being out here.

"When you first join up you are all gung ho. But then you start thinking about your family and making it home. It boils down to the guy next to you. All I want to do is make it back along with all my guys."

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