20 years after 9/11, the American story, as told by veterans


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In a traumatized nation two decades ago, a group of people dashed to military recruitment offices and enlisted in America’s new wars. 

Some of these same veterans have now taken on a vastly different mission 20 years after the nation-rattling events of Sept. 11, 2001. Now they’re helping people flee Afghanistan.

The veterans’ story traces a chapter in American history that began on one terror-filled day — on that Tuesday morning when hijacked planes tore into symbols of U.S. might, raining deadly debris from the clear, denim-blue sky upon a newly panicked superpower.

The World Trade Center burns after being hit by a plane in New York in this file photo from Sept. 11, 2001. (Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters)

Arun Iyer watched in disbelief from his apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at the skyscrapers’ collapse at the World Trade Center.

Neighbours in his building walked up to the rooftop, hugging each other as a cloud of dust and smoke drifted over the skyline. For a moment, he said, he convinced himself the towers were still standing.

“It didn’t process,” Iyer said in an interview. “You’re actually playing tricks on yourself, saying, ‘They’re still there.’ … Almost childlike. … Even though I’d actually heard them crumble.” 

Iyer picked up the next morning’s Wall Street Journal for his next-door neighbour, who never returned home. He was among the nearly 3,000 killed that day.

Iyer went on to call a Navy recruitment centre, asking: “What do you need me to do?” He became an intelligence officer, then a Navy commander, and served in a variety of deployments. 

New Yorkers, including Arun Iyer, watched the disaster unfold from their apartment buildings. (Reuters)

Joseph Roche was farther from home that day. He was in Israel, volunteering with the Israeli military, and was in a tank shop near Jerusalem when a commanding officer asked the American citizens present to come to his office. 

“[A major] said, ‘Your country is under attack. Come with me.'” 

Veteran Joe Roche fears people will forget the Sept. 11 attacks themselves — and the good things he says the U.S. did in response. (Alexander Panetta/CBC News)

Roche now fears future generations might forget what Sept. 11 was like in real time, as it fades from memory into historical prose.

In real time, it was successive waves of terror.

What people remember from 9/11

First one plane struck; people thought it might be an accident. Then another. Then one hit the Pentagon. Then those giant skyscrapers fell in New York. And a plane crashed in Pennsylvania, before it could strike its intended target in Washington.

The Pentagon wasn’t the only Washington-area target that day. Al-Qaeda also intended to strike the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The city descended into panic that day. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Roche’s eyes well up as he recalls what happened after he left his supervisor’s office. He pulled out a transistor radio and heard of the Twin Towers’ collapse. He…

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