Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Carter clearly remembers the horrific scenes of the flame-filled Twin Towers imploding against the New York City skyline.
A doctor’s appointment that morning made him late for school and as he walked the hall toward his classroom, every teacher at Rancho Vista High School in Temecula had a TV on showing images of the airplanes hitting the buildings of the World Trade Center.
“I felt enraged, disconnected and I wanted to do something,” Carter said. “I saw the country in turmoil and I wanted to serve.”
Just hours later, during a birthday party for a younger cousin, he informed family members that he would enlist. His grandfather had served in the Marine Corps and he felt it was his duty as the eldest in his family to follow in those footsteps.
“I knew that was my way of fighting terrorism,” he said.
Then a high school junior, he enlisted in the Army’s delayed entry program and shipped off to basic training on July 22, 2003. He first served in the 82nd Airbourne out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., and now is an Army operations sergeant major for the Southern California Army Recruiting Battalion.
Carter is among the thousands of Americans who, in a surge of patriotism, showed up at their hometown recruiting offices following the 9/11 terrorist attacks looking to stand up for their country and become part of something bigger than themselves.
Many who signed up between 9/11 and 2011 served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Aug. 31, the last U.S. troops withdrew from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, marking an end to America’s longest war, one that started as the United States pursued Al Qaeda in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Driven from power after the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 terrorist strike, Taliban forces took over the county in just 10 days last month as American troops withdrew.
The chaos of the withdrawal, including the bombing at the Kabul airport in which 13 American service members and at least 169 Afghans died, drew criticism for President Joe Biden and his administration.
And it led some to wonder what the impacts of those globally viewed images will mean for the future of the military and its ability to retain and recruit service members.
“Everybody who joined then not only felt an obligation but had a certain passion,” Carter said. “We owned that war.”
At first, the swell of patriotism and people flocking to enlist didn’t translate to a larger military force. Military recruitment is dictated by the requests of commanders and the budgets voted on by Congress; each branch is given an “end-strength number.”
But soon, in the years after 9/11, the branches’ numbers did swell as America’s war on terrorism took shape and requests for larger numbers of enlisted to fill new missions were made.
In FY 2000, the Army, as an example, needed 482,179 people. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ramped up, the required number of troops steadily climbed from 543,000 soldiers in 2008 to 565,000 in 2011.
The Marine Corps, too, saw its end-strength numbers increase from about 173,321 in 2000 to 186,442 in 2006. Then to 202,441 in 2010, when efforts in Afghanistan really built. The Air Force also saw an influx of volunteers, with a high of 349,369 enlisted and officers taking the oath in 2005. In the Navy, in 2002, 46,155 new sailors joined.
“What we saw after 9/11 was a surge in militaristic patriotism, a way for citizens to use the armed forces as a display of strength after such a horrific attack on our home soil,” said Gregory Daddis, a former Chapman University professor who now is the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University. Daddis, who earned a Bronze Star, served in the Army for 27 years, including in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
“The focus on exacting revenge via a military campaign against terror allowed ordinary Americans,” he said, “the chance to participate in redeeming the nation’s honor and thus burnish their own patriotism.”
Americans seemed to collectively use war to “provide meaning to an attack that seemed so senseless to so many,” he said.
Beth Asch, a senior economist who studies military recruitment, enlistment and compensation for the Rand Corporation, said another factor played into recruitment success: Facing higher end-strength numbers, military recruiters capitalized on the swell of interest by bolstered their efforts with bonuses for those who joined, offered better pay and provided special options for those who took on specific military jobs.
Congress also implemented pay raises, making military service more attractive.
“You look at the survey data and you definitely see an increase,” she said. “The services did well after 9/11.”
While fought by a much smaller military than World War II or even the following conflicts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first real test of an all-volunteer force.
Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Ray Gallimore, who joined in 1991, watched the shift over the next decade. He saw the military drawdown its numbers with the thawing of the Cold War, only to ramp up again a bit before 9/11.
“I wanted to serve my country and was compelled to do my part,” said Gallimore, who a decade in, with the 3rd Battalion/6th Marines, helped secure the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan and the embassy in Baghdad shortly after 9/11.
Gallimore said he witnessed a shift in overall patriotism, not only among those who volunteered, but he saw the tangible effects across the nation, too.
“It was surreal,” he said, adding he heard stories from friends whose relatives served during Vietnam and felt they had not been supported by the people back home. He wondered how he would be treated.
“Everyone was treating us as heroes,” he said. “Everywhere you went, someone was wanting to shake your hand and thank you for serving. I wasn’t used to that.”
It didn’t end there. As he moved to a recruiting post with the Marines, the outflow of pride in the military and the country continued.
“We saw an influx of phone calls of people who wanted to do anything they could to serve, even from a lot of older retired Marines,” he said. “It was crazy, they were serious; 9/11 was our Pearl Harbor. Everyone rallied around the flag. There was a spike of young men and women who came to be a part of something bigger.”
The enthusiasm for service also extended in more cases to parents, he said.
“It was much easier to talk to parents because their children were so passionate,” he said. “It was their generation and their time to fight for democracy. Parents were more open to it.”
But as the war drew on, interest among the civilian population waned. And, the reasons people had for service changed.
“People lost sight of why we were there in the prolonged war,” Gallimore said.
He has served as a career recruiter for the Marines and is presently at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. “Seeing all the casualties, views and opinions changed. It wasn’t that people were less patriotic, but they were less willing to serve.
“It made parents and kids question, ‘Why should I join?’ People lost sight of the reason we were still there.”
And now, watching the withdrawal, he said, “It pains me to see what’s going on now.”
“When we were on the ground, we obliterated the Taliban,” he said.
Still, some military branches now report they are meeting — or even exceeding — current recruitment goals and are attracting better-qualified recruits.
Of the 1% nationwide who joined to fight the war on terrorism — especially in comparison to past wars such as Vietnam where the Army’s ranks were more than 1.3 million and the Marines had nearly 260,000 — many who stepped forward, joined because military service had become a family tradition.
By 2009, when the end-strength numbers for military branches increased again because of the renewed focus on Afghanistan, economic reasons, rather than simply being patriotic, had become part of the decision process.
The post- 9/11 version of the GI Bill pays for full tuition and fees for all public universities and colleges and includes a monthly housing allowance.
College tuition and solid training for a future career factored into the equation for many considering enlistment. And, military service ensures a paycheck and benefits.
Carter’s twin sisters — Army Pvt. 2nd Class Madison David and Army Pvt. 2nd Class Jenna Davis — followed their brother and grandfather into service. But they also looked to the Army for new possibilities.
Carter helped enlist them in April 2017 through the Army’s delayed entry program. They went to basic training at Fort Jackson in 2018 after graduating from Temecula Valley High School. Both just returned from deployments; one sister was in Germany and the other in North Africa.
“They saw how well the military takes care of their families,” Carter said. “It was something they wanted and they also wanted to carry on the tradition.”
“The Army is a stepping stone,” he said. “In four years, you’ll be 10 years ahead of those who went to college. Sixty percent of those who go to college graduate with debt and never work in that field again.”
Army recruiters now focus on offering career paths for future soldiers. In the last few years, they have stepped up their recruiting along the West Coast and in more urban markets.
The Rand Corporation’s Asch said she isn’t sure how the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the bloody mark left by the airport bombing in its last days, will affect the future of military recruitment.
Seeing their peers among those killed might give younger people pause when considering enlistment.
But the Afghanistan war had largely fallen out of the public eye, until recently, Daddis pointed out.
“I’m not convinced the tumultuous withdrawal will have much impact on recruiting efforts,” he said. “Nor do I think the American public will cast much blame on the soldiers and Marines who fought there. My sense is most Americans feel like they were placed in a difficult, if not impossible, situation and, for the most part, performed admirably and honorably.”