MARJAH, Afghanistan — Lance Cpl. Jacob Adams was in 5th grade math class when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His parents took him out of school early that day.
Adams, 20, is now serving in a Marine battalion battling Taliban gunmen, many of whom were also just kids on Sept. 11, 2001. He’s part of a new generation of U.S. troops inheriting the wars spawned by the terror attacks.
Many of the men and women who took part in the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have since left the military and moved on with their lives. The changing of the guard is a graphic and personal reminder that the fighting has dragged on longer than anyone ever imagined.
“It’s kind of weird having watched it all on the news those first days,” said Adams. “And then 10 years later, here I am, and here we are still fighting it.”
Adams is on his first combat tour – with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, which deployed to Afghanistan in July. He spoke at a rugged outpost called Typhoon 4, where his squad patrols an endless patchwork of fields growing cotton, corn, marijuana, opium poppies and other crops. There are no paved roads or electricity here in Marjah. There are plenty of hidden bombs.
Adams, from Jacksonville, Florida, said even though he was only 10 when the Twin Towers collapsed, he knew then that he wanted to join the military. But back then, “I didn’t think we’d still be at war,” he said.
Fellow Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Chatel, 20, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, also remembers being pulled out of school on 9/11.
“The principal came on the intercom and called for a moment of silence,” said Chatel, whose tan-colored body armor alone probably weighs more than he did at the time. “I really didn’t know what was going on. When I went back home, I saw my grandmother looking at the news, crying.”
Chatel, too, decided in those early days that joining the military was the patriotic thing to do. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of family: His father’s uncle was a prisoner of war in Korea in the 1950s, his grandmother’s uncle was a paratrooper who served in Normandy during World War II and his grandfather was posted to Germany after the war ended, he said.
Still, he didn’t really pay attention when news broke on Oct. 7, 2001 that the Afghan war had begun. “I didn’t really hear much about it,” Chatel said. “I don’t remember it.”
Countless members of the Army, Navy and Marines who took part in the initial invasions of Afghanistan and two years later of Iraq have rejoined the civilian world and are now raising families.
The turnover rate in the Marine Corps is higher than its sister branches, averaging about 70 percent every four years, said the 2/9′s operations officer, Maj. Dallas Shah. That means only about 30 percent of Marines stay on after their contract ends, he said.
When Shah joined the force more than 20 years ago, it was a very different era. Combat was mainly limited to brief conflicts like the 1989 invasion of Panama or the Gulf War that forced Iraq from Kuwait in the early 1990s.
For teenagers joining now, “there are no illusions,” Shah said. “They go into this knowing full well what’s waiting for them. Thousands have perished before them, and they still join.”
Shah said the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing new generations of military leaders. Many Marines will finish their tours having racked up significant combat experience.
In Marjah, they face entrenched Taliban fighters who launch ambushes on a rural battlefield that has the “hedgerows of Normandy and the trenches of World War I,” Shah said.
The two Marine battalions currently deployed to Marjah have lost 23 men in the last 3 1/2 months, according to a Facebook page that tracks casualties. Marine units here have been pinned down and had to sprint across open fields under hails of machine gunfire.
“We’re releasing guys back into civilian life who’ve been through this crucible,” Shah said, “and it has the effect of making them one of two things: bitter or better.”
Chatel said for him, it was the latter.
“You don’t meet people like you do in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Everybody here is a brother. You have such a close bond. You go through a lot. It just gives you a greater appreciation for life.”
Chatel said he too had no idea when he was growing up that the war in Afghanistan would still be going on when he was old enough for combat duty. “This thing is taking too long,” he said. “But being here is an experience that I’ll never forget.”
The war is also being passed down among Afghan generations – most of whom have spent their entire lives watching their country engulfed in fighting that stretches back to the Soviet invasion in 1979.
In some ways, the war is a continuation of the 1990s civil war that pitted the Taliban against warlords whose factions eventually banded together to form the Northern Alliance. It’s fought on the government side by young Afghan soldiers from the same ethnic groups that made up the alliance. Most were toddlers, or not even born, when it all began.
In the Taliban stronghold province of Kandahar, Afghan troops recently hung a carpet on the wall of a school they and NATO troops were using as a military base. The carpet sported an image of legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood, who was killed in a suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The commanding lieutenant was muscle-bound and confident. His age: 21.