The Warrior Generation that Was Inspired by 9/11

September 10, 2020Matt Fratus
Coffee or Die Photo

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists from the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda hijacked four departing commercial aircraft. At 8:46 a.m., Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center between the 93rd and 99th floors. As first responders rushed to aid the building’s occupants, Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower between the 75th and 85th floors at 9:03 a.m.

The Port Authority locked down the city, closing all bridges and tunnels in the area. At 9:37 a.m., hijackers aboard Flight 77 flew a third plane into the western facade of the Pentagon in Washington. Moments later, at 9:42 a.m., the FAA grounded all flights for the first time in history

The world watched in horror as the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. After family members and friends contacted the passengers aboard Flight 93, which was the fourth plane hijacked, and described the news unfolding in New York City and Washington, the passengers stormed the cockpit in a heroic attempt to retake the plane. Flight 93 crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, before it could reach its intended target. Everyone onboard died.

The North Tower collapsed 102 minutes after it was hit.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, and many more first responders thereafter have battled the lifelong effects of cancer and other illnesses contracted in the aftermath.

As one of the most pivotal moments in modern US history, 9/11 inspired a generation of warriors, the men and women who joined the armed forces and have been fighting the Global War on Terror for nearly 20 years. These are their stories.

Danny O’Neel

9/11 coffee or die
O’Neel in Sadr City, Iraq, after raiding a factory that was used to make explosively formed projectiles (EFPs). Photo courtesy of Danny O’Neel.

Danny O’Neel served in the US Army from 2001 to 2008. He deployed twice to Iraq, most notably serving as a squad leader and forward observer in Sadr City. Nine of his soldiers were killed in Iraq and another 15 committed suicide when they returned. O’Neel’s mission today is serving as a peer mentor to other veterans at Project Healing Heroes as well as an ambassador for numerous surf therapy organizations. O’Neel, alongside his wife, Faun, are also Dole Fellows at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which empowers the caregivers of military service members. 

On 9/11 I was working for a highway construction company in Livermore, California. Normally I watched music videos on MTV while getting ready for work and I saw all the channels showing the World Trade Center on fire. I watched the second plane crash into the building. I sat in disbelief, and after a few minutes I called my boss to quit, informing him I was joining the military. While it was an impulsive decision, it was one of the best choices of my life.  

“That morning as I sat on my bed watching the events unfold, I knew I had to do something. I was young, in shape, motivated, and feeling patriotic. I actually called the Marine Corps office several times thinking I know these guys get up early, where the hell are they? I found out later they had to go to MEPS for a safety briefing since the attack raised the threat level, and the other was on leave. It led to me calling the Army and talking with Corporal Thatcher. He asked if I knew what happened just to be sure I knew what I was getting into. I had no clue.

9/11 coffee or die
O’Neel’s first squad leader and mentor was Jared Monti, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor. Photo courtesy of Danny O’Neel.

“When I first joined the Army I volunteered for every school, starting with airborne, then Ranger Indoctrination Program, and Air Assault. I wanted to be the best trained Soldier I could be and to meet the enemy as swiftly as possible. While my career path didn’t go how I envisioned, I was leading other men after 17 months in. 

“I didn’t take the responsibility lightly, and tried to train my guys so that they could survive any environment. As a squad leader in war, you are directly responsible for the orders given to the men fighting, while you show them by example. It is the greatest honor bestowed upon a leader. While preparing for another deployment I was told I needed to go to mental health.  

“The Army decided I was unable to perform in combat effectively, and I separated. I was angry and bitter for a while, because I thought I was ok. But I needed help, which I eventually got. I use my position as a leader to get others to reach out for help now. We were the most united country after that day, so I work to get back to that America.

“9/11 has impacted me every day since then. It changed the direction of my life, and continues to lead me to serve today. Despite the attack, I was so proud of our response, and the unity we showed as a nation. I had never felt a love for my country like I did that day and the following days. I have been to the 9/11 museum twice. I’m drawn to the people who died there, and want them to know that many people stood up for them. We may not be the greatest generation, but we are the greatest of our generation. When our nation needed us, we showed up in droves, and that makes me proud. September 11th reminds me of our resilience and ability to unify. We could use a little of both right now.” 

DJ Shipley

9/11 coffee or die
DJ Shipley, left, co-founded GBRS Group alongside other former Special Missions Unit operators. Photo courtesy of GBRS Group.

DJ Shipley was a Navy SEAL for nearly 17 years, serving at SEAL Team 10 and Naval Special Warfare Development Group. He medically retired in 2019 and now serves as the co-founder of Tribe Sk8z, which builds one-of-a-kind skateboards and wall art. He is also the co-founder and chief training officer at GBRS Group, which provides Tier One training for real end users. 

“I was sitting in my homeroom during first period. The first plane hit, and it popped on the news. Then the second one hit, and it was like, ‘Huh, that is so weird.’ It immediately said ‘terror,’ and within 15 minutes there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that said, ‘DJ Shipley, please report to the principal’s office.’ 

“So I freaked out and I ran down there and my mom was standing there. She pulled both me and my sister out of school and rushed us down to our family farm, and we sheltered in place because we didn’t know what was going on. 

“You don’t know anything other than movie shit, so it happened and as soon as they said ‘terror’ it felt like out of the movie Red Dawn. 

“It was always the plan anyway to join the military, but 9/11 was the extra motivation. I was getting kicked out of the house, and since 9/11 had just kicked off, now is the time. If you want to be a Navy SEAL or you want to be an Army Ranger, right now is the moment you join. If you were ever going to not go to college, right now is the fucking time. Do not miss this.

coffee or die 9/11
DJ Shipley served as a Navy SEAL for nearly 17 years. Photo courtesy of DJ Shipley.

“There were kids who lined up — everybody who ever wanted to be a Marine Corps sniper joined the Marine Corps that fucking day. People quit professional football to be Army Rangers, dudes who no-shit wanted to get after it and just never had the opportunity because pre-9/11 there was no real reason. We weren’t at war, so it didn’t really become a necessity.

“Post-9/11 people thought, ‘Oh my God, we actually need the military.’ 

“The day after 9/11 we had bumper stickers all over Virginia Beach. It’s a super patriotic town now because we appreciate it, but before, the military was a fucking nuisance. Now they’re at the tail end of it, and they hate us again. The very first time this shit happens again they will instantly love you. Right now nobody appreciates it. They have no idea that people are still overseas getting after it, every single night. 

“9/11 was our chance to be like our grandfathers in World War II, the greatest generation. It’s our time to do this, let’s go do this. When you lost motivation and you were sick of going on deployment or you were sick of going to funerals, you could always look at 9/11 as a pillar to go back one more time. 

“Reflecting on 9/11, it goes through the Rolodex. From being a little kid to the whole time lapse from start to finish. I relive it all one more time. And when I look back, I ask myself the question: ‘Was it all worth it?’ Yup. If I could do it all over again, I’d do more.”

Nolan Peterson

9/11 coffee or die
Peterson on a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. Photo courtesy of Nolan Peterson.

A former Air Force Special Operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nolan Peterson is now a war correspondent who has covered conflicts around the world. In 2015, Peterson was the first American journalist to embed with the Ukrainian regular army in combat.

“When I entered the Air Force Academy in June of 2000, I was 18 years old. My application essay spoke of adventure, travel, exotic experiences, and a career distant from the confines of a desk. At that time, war was an abstraction. An impossibility. And I wasn’t alone in thinking so. 

“In 2000 the country was still absorbed in post-Cold War delusions about everlasting peace. During my freshman year at the academy we discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay, ‘The End of History,’ and earnestly debated whether the US would ever go to war again. The Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War was over. We’d won. Now, it was a unipolar world with America on top of the geopolitical totem pole. 

“Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001, of course. 

“’A plane flew into the World Trade Center,’ I overheard someone say on the walk to class that morning. 

“’What an idiot’ was his friend’s response, assuming with the typical bravado of an Air Force Academy cadet that it was an accident on the part of some careless civilian pilot. 

9/11 coffee or die
Peterson with his wife, Lilly, during a trip to the US Air Force Academy. Photo courtesy of Nolan Peterson.

“I didn’t give the comment much thought, I remember. It was a clear autumn morning in Colorado, just as it was in New York City. I crossed the massive outdoor courtyard of the Air Force Academy, known as the Terrazzo, passing by fighter jets on permanent display and a polished black stone memorial to graduates killed in combat. In 2001 the memorial hadn’t been added to in a while. Most of the engraved names were from Vietnam and had been faded and worn dull by time. 

“The faces of the cadets that morning offered no clue to the drama unfolding across the country. We stared blankly ahead as we trudged to class, our minds filled with worries about homework, military inspections, and fitness tests. I entered Fairchild Hall, the academic building, and a few twists, turns, and staircases later I was at the door to my 7:30 a.m. political science class. I passed the threshold from the hallway to the classroom. No more than 3 feet, just one step. But that step changed everything. By the time I lifted my foot and placed it on the floor inside the classroom, I’d left behind the naive dreams of youth and had met for the first time the reality of a new world and the conflict that would consume the next decade of my life. I took that step and the burning towers were on TV and I knew it meant war. 

“The previous day, I had visited a chaplain. I told him I wanted to quit the academy. I hated it, I confessed. I didn’t understand why I was at that godforsaken place, getting yelled at every day for not shining my shoes correctly while my friends were back at the University of Florida wearing flip-flops and crashing sorority parties. Why did I have to take 21 credit hours a semester and learn how to march when I could go to regular college and have a class or two a day and spend my free time lounging poolside? I was feeling extremely sorry for myself. The chaplain suggested the military wasn’t for me. Maybe I was there for the wrong reasons. 

9/11 coffee or die
Peterson as an Air Force pilot in 2009. Photo courtesy of Nolan Peterson.

“That night I went to my room and filled out an application to transfer to the University of Florida for the spring 2002 semester. That application was on my desk, completely filled out, when I walked to class the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. 

“’The world is going to change,’ the political science instructor said to us as we watched the towers fall.

“‘Every one of you will go to war,’ he said with sureness, adding, ‘And some of you won’t come back.’ 

“Heavy stuff for a 19-year-old to hear. But he was right. 

“When I got back to my room that afternoon, I sent a message to my family that I was okay. And then I took that transfer application to the University of Florida in my hand. It felt toxic to touch. I was embarrassed by it — an artifact of a time to which I could never return. The carefree life of travel and adventure I had dreamt of and longed for was now a shattered illusion. I crumpled the letter and was about to throw it away, but hesitated and then spread the paper back flat on my desk. I used a Sharpie marker to write the word remember across the top before I locked it away. 

“Years later, I brought that old, wrinkled paper with me when I went back to the Air Force Academy as a 36-year-old civilian. I had it in my pocket when, with my wife, Lilly, at my side, I visited the polished black stone monument to the fallen and dragged my fingers across the 21 freshly carved names.”

Kevin Lacz

Photo courtesy of Kevin Lacz.

Kevin “Dauber” Lacz is a former Navy SEAL who served in multiple roles, including sniper, breacher, and combat medic. Since separating from the Navy he has become a certified physician assistant, professional speaker, and author of The Last Punisher. Lacz also worked as a technical advisor and played himself in the Oscar-nominated film American Sniper. 

“By the fall of 2001, I was a 19-year-old undergrad with a mohawk, any number of bruises or shiners acquired in brawls and fistfights, and a general ambivalence toward just about everything that wasn’t girls, booze, or rugby. I was stumbling through my first year of college at James Madison University in Virginia, failing spectacularly with a roughly 0.7 GPA.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up and logged on to AOL Instant Messenger. The scrolling ticker disclosed the same awful news the rest of the world was learning. The gravity of the situation sank in when my mom called and relayed the details of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, just two hours from where I grew up.

“I went to the house next door and watched on television the dark clouds of billowing smoke, the people jumping to avoid the searing flames, the pancaking collapse into the massive fog of dust and rubble. I was overcome with the same feeling of anger that gripped the American consciousness. 

“Later, I heard about Bruce Eagleson, a close family friend who had been a mentor to me growing up in Middlefield, Connecticut. Bruce worked for the Westfield Corporation, and he called his son from one of the towers that morning. ‘I’ve got employees up there,’ Bruce told him. ‘I have to go back in and check on them.’

Photo courtesy of Kevin Lacz.

“They never found his body.

“At Bruce’s memorial service, I found myself at a crossroads. I was not doing enough with my life. Evil men murdered my friend, and what could I do about it? Playing rugby and beer pong until I puked had suddenly lost its allure. I wanted to kill the men who planned the mass murder of nearly 3,000 Americans. It was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and I thought about my family’s connection to the Navy in World War II. My grandfather was a machinist’s mate on a ship in the South Pacific, and my great-uncle flew a biplane, hunting Japanese in the Pacific, where he was shot down and spent four days floating on the open sea before being rescued by US forces. 

“At the Navy recruiting station, I was drawn to an old poster for the SEALs. Five gun-wielding Frogmen in face paint, web gear, and caterpillar mustaches were climbing out of the water. They looked ready to make somebody’s day. The poster read simply ‘SEALs,’ and I vaguely knew of their reputation. I was interested, and after a little research, it didn’t take long to decide I wanted to become one. I was done living a life of mediocrity. It was the first real risk I’d ever taken — the moment I decided to step up and be a man.”

Aaron Love

9/11 coffee or die
Aaron Love with “Charlie the PJ.” Photo courtesy of Aaron Love.

Aaron Love has been a United States Air Force pararescue jumper (PJ) for the past 18 years, joining shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He is also one of the founders of the Ones Ready podcast, which is set up to help guide potential candidates to succeed in the US Air Force Special Warfare pipelines. Love has also served as a PJ instructor and helped adjust the pipeline to the setup implemented today. 

“There was this awesome place in northeast Ohio that used to have dollar shot night, and they also had outdoor sand volleyball right on the lake. That was our Monday tradition among all of my friends. I was living with a couple friends, working in a bar, and bouncing around northeast Ohio. We all woke up on Tuesday, and as I was getting ready to go to work I noticed the first impact. Then obviously I was watching the entire time, all the way through the second impact. As it started to unfold there was confusion, eventual anger, and there was a good amount of fear, too, because being in northeast Ohio, we didn’t know where Flight 93 was going. 

“It ended up crashing in Pennsylvania, but for the moment we didn’t know, it had lost radar contact and stopped responding to calls. It was coming toward Ohio before it started turning back around toward the Pennsylvania area. There were a lot of things going on at that time.

“I come from a big military family. I’m the oldest of six — four of us are boys, all four of us are in the military. Both my grandparents were in the military, and my dad was in the Army. It just got to be one of those things that as soon as we figured out what this was, that it was a no-kidding terrorist attack, it didn’t take long after that — 9/11 happened on a Tuesday, and I was talking to recruiters on that Friday to try to get in the door.

“My dad was driving me to my house in Akron, Ohio, and I told him I was going to hit some recruiters up today [that Friday]. I’m going to go to the Army and I want to go Special Forces or Rangers, then I’m going to talk to the Marines and I want to do MARSOC, and he said, ‘Just do me a favor, go to the Air Force and talk to them about their special operations. They are the best-kept secret in SOCOM. I want you to go talk to them first.’

9/11 coffee or die
Aaron Love, right, stands next to his brother Bryon before a military free fall jump with the Army. Photo courtesy of Aaron Love.

“It took about 10 minutes of hearing what a PJ is and what it is that they do before I was ready to go into the Air Force.

“We were attacked on our homeland, and of course you want to go take the fight to whoever did that, but for me, because I come from a long line of military in my family, every generation has to pay its price. Every generation has to pay its dues to protect the way that we live in the United States of America. I knew this was our generation’s chance to go pay back America for the country that we are. My brothers and I, we knew it was going to be somebody else’s son if it wasn’t us. If it wasn’t people willingly standing up and saying, ‘Hey, this is important to me and I want to go do this,’ and if not, somebody else was going to have to fill that role.

“The greatest generation — when World War II happened, people weren’t sitting around like, ‘Oh what are we going to do,’ no, this is what we are doing, so let’s go.

“I’m a couple months short of 19 years in, and over the course of those 19 years I don’t know how many friends I’ve lost. It always hits harder on 9/11. It gives you a little bit more pause when that day rolls around because it’s two decades. I’ve seen every single second of my almost 20-year enlistment now has been in a time of war. For those guys that got in right around my time, that is something that is astounding to other people, and there is no way to explain that. Every time Sept. 11 rolls around some of those old feelings are dredged up, but then you think about the cost we have paid over the last 20 years. I think that gives you a lot of pause.”

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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