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.

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.