Editor’s note: What a better way to celebrate the Military Appreciation Month than with some “Why I Joined” stories?

I was skipping class the morning of September 11th. 

It was three days after my 17th birthday and I was a cocksure senior with a buddy who had a car. I was making my way to the student parking lot when I spotted my history teacher. Mr. Potter was a big Italian guy who was always more of a coach than a teacher; his presence always commanded respect. He was standing in the nurse’s glass waiting room staring at a TV mounted high on the wall. I noticed a news ticker and saw smoke. A skyscraper on fire. 

I slid into the nurse’s office and he turned. He shot me a look — half inquisitive, half knowing — then turned back to the TV. I stood beside him and we watched smoke billowing from the tower. The newscasters were baffled. How could this happen? Then, a second airplane cut the sky, crashed into the second tower and disappeared into a ball of fire. In shock and disbelief, I turned to Mr. Potter hoping he could explain what I was seeing. He looked down at me, tears streaming from his eyes and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. We stood in silence and wept.

The summer after my senior year I left for college, the country ablaze in yellow ribbons.

I never considered myself a patriot. I never considered myself much of anything really. Sure, I had an affinity for military movies and did my fair share of camouflaged “night raids” with the other boys in my neighborhood, but I was always more into music, sports, and girls.

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Still, the military was deep into my DNA somewhere. I remember my maternal grandfather showing me a dress saber he displayed proudly on the mantle of his fireplace. Countless nights I went to sleep listening to my dad tell me fantastical stories about his father chasing Rommel out of North Africa as a soldier in Patton’s Seventh Army. I cherished the cap my uncle had gifted me; his captain’s hat from his days commanding the USS Sumter out of Norfolk Virginia, replete with its gold “scrambled eggs.” But my family was firmly left of center and both my parents were quasi hippies. There was no pressure to serve, no shoes to fill. 

The author’s uncle, center, aboard the USS Sumter.

By the time I turned 18, I was running squad movements across the astro-turf of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University with my fellow ROTC cadets. I couldn’t tell you what classes I took or what girls I dated that year. But I remember ironing my BDUs and polishing my boots. I remember watching the Shock and Awe campaign on the small TV in my dorm room. I remember thinking that the whole thing was going to be over in a matter of months. 

Memorial plaque of author’s maternal grandfather.

The summer following my freshman year I enlisted in the United States Army Reserve. I would tell my parents and siblings that it was for the college money. I would tell my college buddies that it was a way to piss off my liberal parents. But what I couldn’t tell anyone was that I wanted to deploy. 

I remember the look of surprise on the recruiter’s face when I told him. He rummaged through some papers, looked over my test scores and showed me where to sign. I didn’t know it then, but the guy had actually done me a solid. 

I started my sophomore year with a spring in my step. Classes were boring. I couldn’t wait to get my orders. I quit ROTC. The idea of waiting another few years for a commission seemed impossible to the 19 years old me. 

Then one day, my orders arrived and just like that, I was an Army private.

Most people don’t know what Civil Affairs is or what it does. But as I would come to learn, it was an important weapon in our country’s counter-insurgency doctrine. I remember the pride I felt training alongside Green Berets at Fort Bragg’s “Swick” (or more formally, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School). I remember the excitement I had while sludging through Nasty Nick. I felt a sense of honor. I felt like a warrior. 

Author, first row, far left, with his Civil Affairs team and Afghan Security Force detail. Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, 2004.

On the toughest days, I would remember my grandfathers. I would conjure images of my dad’s father in the dusty hills of North Africa. I would remember my mother and how she carried her father’s dog tags, and how she cried when she bequeathed me the flag that was draped on his coffin. 

I celebrated my 20th birthday in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. My hooch mate gave me my first cigar. My team Sergeant slipped me a mini bottle of Jack Daniels his wife had smuggled in a care package. I remember suiting up early one morning not long after, feeling for my equipment in the darkness. My fingers found the right sleeve of my uniform, freshly adorned with a combat patch and an embroidered American flag.

The author on patrol in Afghanistan, 2004.

I don’t know much more today than I did that September morning. I’ve been asked hundreds of times why I enlisted and if I would do it again. As I have aged my reasons have evolved.

I wonder about duty. I think about the Ancient Greeks and their concepts of citizenship. I consider how foolish and young and naive I was. I think of my grandfathers and the men they served with, the friends they surely lost. I remember Mr. Potter, his big arm locked around my shoulders and the look in his eyes as he wept. I realized then that someday, someone’s son would go off to fight in my place and all I would have to offer would be a strong, steady arm to comfort him.