By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2008 - Several dozen young men and women spent the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at the Baltimore Military Entrance Processing Station here, preparing to enter a Military that is fighting the war those attacks launched. Except for a flag at half staff in front of the building and a large-screen television in the waiting room beaming newscasts filled with images of the 9/11 attacks, an air of normalcy filled the station.
Recruits from Maryland, the District of Columbia and parts of Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia arrived at the station before 5:30 a.m. to begin a flurry of tests to ensure they're fit for duty and meet the Military's aptitude standards.
By the day's end, all would leave as new members of the armed forces who had signed their Military contracts and taken the oath of enlistment. About 50 of them would ship directly to basic training or boot camp – a relatively slow day at one of the country's busiest MEPS facilities.
The significance of processing into the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard on the 9/11 anniversary wasn't lost on the applicants. Most were middle-school or high-school students when the Twin Towers crumbled, the Pentagon belched ugly black smoke and a reclaimed minefield in western Pennsylvania turned into a killing field.
Eighteen-year-old Jesse Holbrook remembered sitting in a 7th grade English class in Hartford County, Md., not understanding why frantic parents poured into the school to retrieve their children. Only when he got home did his parents explain that the United States had come under attack. Seven years later to the day, Holbrook was shipping off to boot camp at Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Ill.
"This is something I am going to be proud to do," he said. "I remember seeing a sign, 'Freedom Doesn't Come Free,' and I guess that's really true."
Patrick Downs, 24, remembered his teacher flicking on the TV on Sept. 11, 2001, so the students could watch news of the attacks. He was a high school senior at the time, headed to college at Maryland's Salisbury University to play footfall.
The attacks, and the global war on terror that followed, deepened a sense of patriotism Downs said he always felt, but later felt compelled to act on by joining the Army. "[The attacks] made it all more real. It made it personal," he said. "You don't think something like this is going to happen to your generation until it happens."
With his acceptance to Army Officer Candidate School already in hand, Downs processed through the Baltimore MEPS today to head off to basic training. His goal is to go infantry, perhaps even to Ranger School. "That's what I really want," he said. "It's something I've thought a lot about, and I'm ready for it."
Anthony Larson, 21, recalled being escorted out of high school freshman English class after the 9/11 attacks. He had no idea at the time that he'd be getting sworn into the Army seven years later before starting basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. In fact, it wasn't until just a couple of months ago, when he got rear-ended in a parking lot, that Larson decided to enlist. The vehicle that backed into him had a bumper sticker that read, "I Don't Support Our Troops."
"Can you believe that? Thousands and thousands of people have died to give him the right to put that bumper sticker on his car," Larson said of the driver. The more Larson thought about the bumper sticker and his outrage over it, the more resolved he became to join the Army.
"I guess I basically believe that everyone should fight for their country," he said. "You are supposed to earn what you have, and I think too many people don't take that responsibility seriously. And the bottom line is, this is our war. Our parents can't step in and do this for us. It hits you so quick: It's grown-up time."
Station Commander Army Lt. Col. Robert Larsen was assigned to the MEPS in Atlanta on 9/11, and he watched the recruiting rush that followed as young people flocked to join the Military in response. But seven years later, he said, he's concerned that many Americans have forgotten the threat that still remains, and he said the country still needs committed young people to defend against that threat.
Everyone has heard the old sayings, "Remember the Maine" and "Remember the Alamo," and it's hard to find someone who can't recount the story of the Pearl Harbor attack, he said.
"But it seems so soon that too much of the population is not saying, 'Remember the Pentagon.' 'Remember the World Trade Center.' 'Remember Pennsylvania.' 'Remember 9/11,'" he said. "It's a mindset, and I'm afraid that a lot of the American population has lost that mindset."
Larson said the Military makes no secret of the fact that many of the young people it recruits could find themselves in combat, and praised those who step up to serve when the country needs them most.
"As a U.S. citizen, you have to ask, 'If not them, then who?" he said. "And if not them, then the next question is, 'When will the next attack occur? When will we face another 3,000 casualties to wake us up from the slumber we've fallen into?"