When the Twin Towers fell on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, everyone knew that things had changed, especially those in America’s armed forces who watched as a new threat surfaced from which they would have to defend the nation.
Since 2001, hundreds of thousands of military service members from all over the country have been called to take up arms in retaliation for those attacks, serving interminable tours in excruciating heat thousands of miles from their homes and families. Many Hi-Line residents were among the thousands of Montana National Guard members who have served in both of America’s conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that resulted from those attacks.
Second Lt. Dan Bushnell, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard, said many people signed up to help out how they could.
“After 9/11 we saw a large influx in our recruiting numbers because of the events that occurred on that September day, ” Bushnell said.
The increase in people signing up, combined with the greater need in the military for these recruits, led to some significant changes in how the National Guard operates.
“The National Guard we have now is no longer a strategic reserve, but an operational force, ” Bushnell said.
He said they are treated more like the active duty military, receiving equipment and funding that they never would have before. The 163rd Cavalry regiment, currently coming off a year-long deployment, is scheduled to be the first National Guard unit to receive a new M1A2 tank.
“That would have been unheard of before 9/11, ” Bushnell said.
The 120th Fighter Wing, from the Air National Guard in Great Falls, is running missions over Hawaii that have always been the realm of active duty pilots.
Bushnell said the National Guard is not only filling in where the Department of Defense needs them, but is doing things the regular Army can’t do, like having members with agricultural experience train civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan grow crops — other than opium.
And all of these duties are handled on top of regular National Guard domestic work, providing assistance to local governments and law enforcement in relieving communities affecting by natural disasters, from the tornados of the south to flooding both in this area and recently on the east coast from Hurricane Irene.
Bushnell said that Montanans are not only among the highest in rates of enlistment and having served per capita, but, from his talking to officers elsewhere in the country that have served with units from Montana, they are among the best service members out there.
With the National Guard, which requires one weekend a month of drills and a few weeks in the summer, aside from deployments, it might not be entirely obvious who has spent at least a year in a desert camp or who will be soon. Most are not strolling downtown in their combat boots and uniform.
One local who signed up after 9/11 and spent time in Iraq is state Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre.
Shortly after moving to Montana in 2003, Hansen said she was inspired to do something.
“I remember watching the news coverage of the troops packing up and going in, ” Hansen said. “I remember standing there in the living room thinking, ‘I want to help. I want to be a part of this’. ”
She joined in 2004 and, after spending some time as a military lawyer in Helena, managed join up with an Alaskan Air National Guard unit as it deployed to Iraq in 2008.
“If you go over there with your brain engaged and your eyes open, you have to come to some realizations about America's place in the world and what our purpose and role is. It is an eye-opening experience, ” Hansen said.
Just as Hansen was getting ready to leave, fellow Hill County Courthouse employee Virginia Seigel, who works as Justice Court clerk, was returning from a 15-month tour in Iraq, where she was a Chinook helicopter pilot, lifting supplies and soldiers into combat areas, mostly at night.
Seigel said there were a few close calls.
She first joined the military in 1990, working in military intelligence for four years. She was then commissioned as a captain in 1999.
According to Seigel, the 1990s were a strange time for the U. S. military. As the Soviet Union fell, the military didn’t really know what to do or how to prepare for it.
Sept. 11 changed all that.
She was sitting in a hotel in Korea, having just arrived and not assigned housing yet, when her husband called from the U. S. and shared the unbelievable news. After being able to watch for a few minutes on Korean television, she was called to the base and intense work began.
“The enemy now had a face. There was a threat to America, and we knew what it looked like, ” Seigel said. “It looked like terrorism. The question was now what we do.
“The focus for us was very sharp. There was no tolerance for us service members to offer anything less than our best. ”
For Chauncy Parker, a captain in the National Guard from Rocky Boy, 9/11 offered a different kind of change in focus.
He had just enlisted three months prior, joining the National Guard in June 2001 to help him pay for an education from Carroll College.
He did get that education, graduating in 2007, delayed slightly by a 15-month tour in Iraq in 2004, one of the most dangerous times toward the beginning of the conflict.
He has since returned to Iraq, for a year in 2009.
Now he works on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, helping fellow veterans of current and past conflicts.
Having experienced the difficulty of transition from desert war zone to peace-time living, he feels he can help.
“Trying to adjust back into civilian life was a little difficult but luckily I had family support to carry me through, ” Parker said. “When I got back from the first deployment, you didn’t see a lot of programs offered to offer transition assistance. This time there was more offered to soldiers. ”
“Once you go over there and come back, there’s always something that’s going to affect you. You never come back the same person. ”
It’s hard to stay the same person when, after this decade, it’s hardly the same world.