Suddenly feeling an obligation to serve; 9/11 remembered 10 years later

The day feels so distant to Mark Olson, almost like another life.

Before the nervous trip to the recruiting office, before the year in Iraq, before the nightmares, he arrived at the Palouse Mall in Moscow, Idaho, at 7 a.m. to train as a Starbucks barista. Barely 18 years old, he also worked at Rosauers Supermarket and a pizzeria to save money for college.

In the mall’s parking lot, Mr. Olson noticed his Starbucks manager sitting in her car. The radio blared.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Shut up,” said the manager, usually a friendly woman, “the second tower just got hit.”

Mr. Olson didn’t know what she was talking about. The television at an Orange Julius inside the empty mall provided answers as the twin towers collapsed.

And what became a familiar thought entered Mr. Olson’s mind: We need to do our part.

“A lot of my life was shaped by that day in September,” he recalled. “Nine-11 sparked a fire that was already there. … But I’m sure there were other guys who thought, ‘Are you high?’ “

But the spike in patriotism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks didn’t lead to an increase in enlistments, according to the recruiting commands of the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy.

“No actual enlistment impact,” the Army replied.

“No appreciable surge,” wrote the Marines.

“We had a goal set and we met our goal,” the Navy said. “We don’t ask what reasons they come in for.”

Each branch tracks accessions - recruits enlisted and shipped to boot camp - in a fiscal year from October through September. In the first fiscal year after the attacks, the Army, for instance, had 79,585 accessions against its active-force goal of 79,500. The same year, the Navy recorded 46,150 accessions with a target of 46,155. The recruiting goals are linked to each branch’s congressionally authorized end strength. They can’t exceed those goals.

In the two years before the attacks, there were more active Army accessions than in the two years following. The Navy actually needed 7,370 fewer recruits the year after the attacks.

While visits and calls to military recruiting offices increased, the legend of a wave of enlistments rolling in after Sept. 11 isn’t true. Mr. Olson was an anomaly.

“There’s a need,” one spokesman added, “to create a mythology around certain events.”

An Air Force survey revealed motivation to enlist shifted after the attacks. Among recruits who completed basic training from 2002 to 2005, patriotism was one of the top three reasons for enlisting. The reasons now usually revolve around educational benefits, job security and independence. Patriotism, the Air Force said, no longer is one of the top three reasons.

Eight days after the attacks, Mr. Olson visited an Army recruiting office in Lewiston, Idaho. He didn’t want someone telling him when to wake up each morning. But he felt obligated to serve, driven by friends already enlisted and the memory of his grandfather’s service in the Navy during World War II. Because he wanted a specialty other than the infantry, his entry was delayed until he started boot camp at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 2004.

In late 2005, he arrived in Baghdad as a chaplain’s assistant - essentially a bodyguard for the noncombatant chaplain - with the 5th Engineer Battalion from Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood. Multiple blasts from improvised explosive devices shook the Buffalo armored vehicle he rode in while accompanying troops on road-clearing patrols.

Finding and removing IEDs was the battalion’s job, an unceasing, nerve-shredding game of hide-and-seek with insurgents. Four men died during the yearlong tour. Twenty-five others were wounded.

“Everything was so different,” Mr. Olson said. “I’m still proud of what I did … but I didn’t really want to talk about it.

“It changed. The patriotism after 9/11 was more innocent. When you’re in a war zone, it’s different.”

Today, Mr. Olson, 28, attends the University of Idaho, studying for a career in public relations and working with Operation Education, a university program that assists disabled veterans. He picks up a shift each week at a grocery store, too. Reminders of his stint in the Army, which he left in 2008, start with the hearing aids he wears in class. Explosions in Iraq permanently damaged his hearing.

Coming home from Iraq was harder than being there. Loud noises startled him. A close friend from the battalion killed himself a month after departing the Army. Mr. Olson received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Pictures or news accounts or books couldn’t compare to living through combat. How could he explain it? He wondered what would’ve happened if he had enrolled in college instead of enlisting. But regret never entered Mr. Olson’s mind.

“War is never pretty. I think it’s really pretty easy for people to see a lot of images and say, ‘I know where you’re coming from,’ ” he said. “But I’m glad I was able to do something.”

The day in September when Mr. Olson walked into Starbucks as a carefree 18-year-old tugs at his thoughts. He marvels over teenagers who have no memory of Sept. 11, when it shaped much of the past decade of his life.

One day. Ten years removed, but always there.

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