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In Afghanistan, Soldiers And Marines Reflect On The 18th Anniversary Of Sept. 11

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 12, 2019 7:46 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now to Afghanistan on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. NPR's Tom Bowman is travelling around the country with a top American officer talking with soldiers and Marines about loss and remembrance and an ongoing military mission that is entering its 18th year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON WEBSTER: Can you hear me back there? All right, would you join me in prayer, please?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Chaplain Jason Webster offers a prayer just after dawn at Kandahar Airfield. There's more than 150 runners taking part in a benefit for Tunnel to Towers, a nonprofit aiding the families of 9/11 first responders and those who died in the ongoing wars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEBSTER: First, I acknowledge the pain and suffering of so many over the past 18 years. From the loss of life on 9/11 to...

BOWMAN: Some bow their heads. Others closed their eyes. And still others stare intently ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARYANNA SWANSON: All right, on your mark. Get set. Go.

(CROSSTALK)

BOWMAN: Navy nurse Maryanna Swanson is organizing this run. She's from Long Island, from a family of cops and firefighters. Both her dad and uncle helped the recovery at Ground Zero.

SWANSON: They went down to help just clean rubble out of the pile, which was pretty gruesome from the stories I've heard.

BOWMAN: That all helped spur an interest in military service, she says, in an effort to help others.

SWANSON: As a kid, I never really thought about war until, like, after 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

BOWMAN: It's a three-mile run around this sprawling base with strong links to the September 11 attacks. Just a short drive away is Tarnak Farm, an al-Qaida training base visited by some of the 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden himself. Now it's just a collection of broken concrete buildings.

FRANK MCKENZIE: Everybody be seated, please.

BOWMAN: Next door in Helmand Province, the officer overseeing the entire region, Gen. Frank McKenzie, meets Marines inside a small chapel. And his talk turns to the anniversary.

MCKENZIE: Today - I don't have to remind any of you - is September the 11th. We are here because of that day. That's what brought all of us here. And for the last 17, 18 years, that's been the basis for our involvement in this country.

BOWMAN: The war has gone on for so long there's a new generation of fighters, many of whom have little memory of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHRISTOPHER SORIA: I was in third grade. I remember my teacher turning on the television. Myself, I kind of - I didn't know what I was really watching.

JORDAN ALLISON: I was in fourth grade when it happened, kind of saw pictures on the internet and things. I didn't quite understand it at first.

BOWMAN: That's Staff Sgt. Christopher Soria and Sgt. Jordan Allison. They sit at a picnic table at a base outside the northern city of Mazar e Sharif surrounded by parched, brown mountains. And each of them advises the Afghan army.

Another soldier here has more vivid memories of 9/11. Sgt. 1st Class Michele Rebello was a young mother that day, watching on TV as the planes hit the World Trade Center and realizing things would never be the same. Today she'll continue training the Afghans with logistics and wonders if any of them will stop and think about it much.

MICHELLE REBELLO: Not sure if they'll really identify that the significance of the day and the meaning. I won't bring it up at all, but it will be a significant event for me.

BOWMAN: She and many soldiers here have followed the news about possible troop cuts and the back-and-forth with Taliban talks and the decision to cancel a Taliban visit to Camp David shortly before September 11.

REBELLO: I believe that our leaders will do what they think is right. I'm definitely glad that they rethought having personnel come to Camp David on that day.

BOWMAN: How come?

REBELLO: I think it was a smart move. Yeah, I think the date should have just been maybe different.

BOWMAN: For Sgt. Soria, who was in third grade back in 2001, he knows that many Americans question the Afghanistan mission, wonder why it's still going on after 18 years. I asked him if he'll come back here again.

SORIA: I think there's still a lot more that needs to be accomplished in this country. So I would like to say no, that I won't be coming back to this country, but I foresee having to come back to this country again.

BOWMAN: Coming back to prevent threats against the United States again, he says, attacks like those that occurred on September 11.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.