After 9/11, Camp Lejeune Marines recall being first responders in War on Terror

There were first responders at Ground Zero and then there were first responders in a ground attack in the Middle East.

"There was just anticipation. We were on a very short tether and we knew we could get the call to deploy," Captain Chris Swift with the U.S. Marine Corps said. "You know what you're doing, the purpose is real. It's everything you've trained to do."

Swift joined the Marines in 1998. On Sept. 10, 2001, Swift was a helicopter crew chief at Camp Lejeune preparing for a deployment to the Mediterranean. A few weeks later, Swift and his unit boarded the U.S.S. Baton and headed east toward the Mediterranean and then through the Suez Canal.

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"Once the whole boat was told prepare to go through the Suez, we knew where we were going at that point," Swift said. "It's excitement, a huge adrenaline rush. This is it, this is the real deal. I'm at the point tip of the spear."

The destination, of course, was Afghanistan, the first front in the newly declared "War on Terror."

On October 7, President George W. Bush authorized airstrikes against the Taliban, and along with Great Britain, the western allies unleased an air assault on Taliban and al Qaeda targets. The ground war would commence two weeks later.

"I remember the beating of the rotor blades, watching the desert and mountains pass by," Swift said of his view as a door gunner. "We were the first ones in Kandahar pretty much since the Soviets abandoned it. We get out there and there's Russian equipment, aircraft engines, armament still preserved. We're checking the whole place out."

Swift would conduct some 30-40 flights over two months, shuttling coalition ground troops into Afghanistan. As the captain described it, the mood among marines was all business despite the memory of 9/11 and the attacks on the homeland.

"It's not about you. It's about everyone else. This is what I'm being paid to do, this is what I've been training for the last three years of my life. This is what I'm good at and it's time for me to get out there and do it."

9/11 Inspires New Recruits

For troops already enlisted or commissioned by 9/11, their careers in the military were established and their own reasons for joining potentially came during times of peace. But perhaps for the first time since World War II, the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon struck at the nerve at many younger Americans. Unlike Vietnam, for instance, the War on Terror in Afghanistan was an effort everyone could get behind.

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"The image for me was just a few days later when you saw President Bush at (Ground Zero) with the first responders," Gunnery Sgt. Willie Tompkins said. "He was giving them words of encouragement and hope to keep going forward. That's what sparked my fire to join the military."

Tompkins was a sophomore in high school in 2001. He joined the Marines upon graduation and deployed to Afghanistan in 2004.

"Yes it was years later when I deployed to Afghanistan, but the mission was still the same mission," Tompkins said. "I took it as a slap in the face. The threat to the homeland. You're coming on our soil and threatening our way of life and threatening our wellbeing. You don't have to put a face and a name with an actual terrorist."

At that time, however, there was a face and a name emblematic of the terror: Osama bin Laden. Until his death at the hands of U.S. troops in 2011, bin Laden, the Taliban and Afghanistan were the known enemy. Even in Iraq, a second front in the War on Terror, Saddam Hussein and later the Islamic State offered something tangible for recruits to envision when joining the military. They knew who the U.S. was fighting and where.

"If I didn't do my job, I was failing my country and my fellow service members," Tompkins said.

Decades later, the U.S. military has ended ground operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also few, if any, terrorist leaders as recognizable to Americans as bin Laden or even Abu Bakr al Baghdadi were years ago.

For Gunnery Sgt. Tompkins, that shouldn't matter for the next generation of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. The military, too, need not adjust its pitch.

"My freedom, to me, is family," he stated proudly. "Just being able to protect my family and see my family. It's a privilege and honor for me, sir."

The same sentiment applies to Captain Swift, a proud Marine and now a father of four.

"It's probably the same thing our forefathers said: we're doing this so our kids don't have to. They're going to inherit a better world."
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