Young Americans who watched the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold before their eyes are now all grown up, prepared to prevent another attack on U.S. soil.
By Samantha Miller
As college seniors across the country grapple with diving headfirst into a dismal job market, four graduating midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., face an entirely different challenge — going to war.
“You don’t really join the military to stay out of the fight,” said Christopher Memminger, 22. “We all want to be in the fight, right in the middle.” Prompted by dreams of becoming a jet pilot, Memminger, who now has his hands full majoring in political science, international relations and Chinese, decided to apply to the program as a high school senior. But unlike many Academy alumni before him, Memminger and other 2011 graduates chose to join the military in the midst of not one, but two wars.
“I grew up with the war going on, so it was definitely a huge factor,” he said of his decision to enroll. “And it was a huge factor in my life and our generation’s lives because we went through all of high school with a war going on.”
Memminger isn’t alone — 12 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now say they were more likely to join the military because of the 9/11 attacks, according to an American University School of Communication survey. Moreover, Navy enlistment jumped from nearly 378,000 in 2001 to more than 385,000 a year later, according to the Navy Recruiting Command.
Like so many young Americans coming of age in the shadow of 9/11, Memminger says he vividly remembers the moment his childhood vision of world peace came tumbling down. He was sitting in a seventh-grade world geography class in Jacksonville, Fla., when news of the attacks first reached his ears. “I realized that the world wasn’t just America, that there was more out there and there were people that didn’t like us,” he said.
In another Jacksonville middle school across town, Caroline Barlow, now 21, and the rest of her seventh-grade English class, watched the television in horror as plumes of smoke surrounded the Pentagon and Twin Towers. “I was pretty young, so I think I was just shocked and in disbelief at first,” she said. “And I remember my teachers turning on the news and then turning it off right away and sending us home.”
While Barlow will never forget the tragic events that transpired on 9/11, she says the attacks weren’t her primary motivation for enrolling in the Academy. In fact, the Rhodes Scholar and honors oceanographer major knew she wanted to serve as a Navy officer since her sophomore year of high school. “I thought the Academy would challenge me in all areas — mental, moral and physical — to develop into the best officer I could be,” she said.
“A lot of people think that every midshipman comes to the Academy and they’re super patriotic and their whole life they’ve wanted to serve in the military,” Barlow said. “That’s not always the case — everyone has their different reasons for coming.” She says some students come to play Division I sports, while others are looking to jump-start a political career.
Natalie Logan, from Colorado Springs, Colo., wasn’t convinced she wanted to join the military until she attended a summer seminar at the Academy. Four years later, the 22-year-old chemistry major is preparing herself for the possibility of being shipped overseas. “It can be a little overwhelming, a little scary at first because you’re going into a very hostile place. But it’s also a little bit exciting because you get to become a part of making a difference,” Logan said. “The things that we watch and see on TV, I will be out there.”
Boston native Sean Fitzmaurice knew he wanted a career in the Navy since middle school — two years before the 9/11 attacks. “The fact that we were going to war really amplified my initial desires to come here,” the 23-year-old oceanographer major said. “The sense of urgency and the purpose of everything we’re doing here just has a little extra meaning knowing what’s going on in the rest of the military.”
But military life isn’t the only thing on their minds. Sure, they wake up at 6:30 a.m. — sometimes earlier — have scheduled study halls and march in line to meals. But in the end, they’re normal college students. “The people that go here and excel in the military are still human,” Logan said. “We’re normal people.”
“The perception might be that it’s somewhat impersonal and more of a tough, grunting, physical preparation for combat and that all we’re doing are obstacle courses,” Fitzmaurice said. “When really, I think people are surprised at the level of development that we get individually [and academically].”
All graduates are required to serve at least five years in the military, according to Judy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Academy. But some students pursue graduate degrees beforehand. Barlow, for instance, will be spending the next two years studying energy policy at the University of Oxford, and Fitzmaurice will be attending the Naval Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C.
And while Fitzmaurice says attending the Academy was the most difficult thing he’s ever done, the midshipman couldn’t be happier with the experiences and memories he’s gained along the way.
“I was born on July 4,” he chuckled. “I was going to end up in the military at some point.”