KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- 'Rejoice O young man in thy youth'
-- Ecclesiastes 11:9
War has always fallen most heavily upon the young. Five years ago, in the wake of collapsed towers and billowing smoke, the first generation of post-9/11 enlisted men raised their hands
to serve, becoming the initial wave to shoulder the burden of an emerging war.
Most of them watched the attacks with their classmates in a non-descript room - an interrupted history or English lesson long forgotten - and unlike most of those around them, they summoned the courage to act. Those who did - these better angels of our nature -- have found themselves on the front lines of a global struggle to shout down the frenzied demons of ideological and religious fanaticism.
Five years after they watched their worlds change on television, five years to the day, 20 aviation support Marines stepped off a plane in a still-violent Kandahar, Afghanistan, and set up shop in a portable tent,isolated at the far end of a dusty airstrip. They work here together, a cross section of humanity, in a place whose truth lies beneath a veil of time.
It was here in December 2001 that Stephen Thurston, a 33-year-old Navy Corpsman 2nd Class from Tampa Bay, Fla., watched men die taking the same airfield on which he now sits comfortably, the bustling runways belying the sacrifice made by the warriors who fell here defending freedom.
Among the dead were young Marines, just like Lance Cpl. Michael Burtnick, a 22-year-old from Clinton, N.J. Burtnick was in high school during the Sept. 11 attacks, a junior firefighter trying to get to Ground Zero with the rest of his volunteer fire department. He now
scrawls "FDNY" on the bombs he helps build. The same letters are inked into his back, acting as a small memorial to those who died beneath the twin towers.
Another Marine here, 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Ricky Manley from Memphis, Tenn., says he owes a daughter and wife to the Marine Corps. He spends his days on the airfield securing ordnance to the underside of outgoing aircraft, helping to settle a five-year score.
Also here is Cpl. Joshua Copeland, 21, from Green Bay, Wis. He was inspired to join the Corps by the example of his friend, Pfc. Ryan Jerabek, a Marine who gave the last full measure of his devotion on the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, on April 6, 2004. Jerabek's name has found its way onto departing bombs destined for retribution in the Afghan wilderness.
They are each part of a turnaround crew for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's AV-8B Harriers, which have been busy this month supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Each represents the lasting effect of 9/11, what it costs and and what is still owed for the
reckoning that Americans expect. In another time, with a trick of fate, it could have been any one of these young Marines waiting there at the end of the airstrip - a patriot in a flag-draped coffin - waiting to go home again.
'That's when we knew we were going to war'
Five years ago, Thurston was in the middle of an audio research class in Building 65 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., when a Navy chief interrupted the class to inform them of the World Trade Center attack.
"We took a 10-minute break and watched as the second plane hit," he said.
Having already served eight years as a corpsman, Thurston knew that everything in the military was going to change.
"We heard reports that the Pentagon got hit, and that's when we knew we were going to war."
Until that time, Thurston's experience in the military consisted of a couple of MEU deployments sprinkled with training missions.
"After the attacks, we thought that we'd all be deployed immediately," he added.
He and the rest of the military wouldn't have to wait long, as America plunged into Operation Enduring Freedom soon after the attacks with the purpose of punishing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters deemed responsible.
"We started gearing up for actual combat. It was a totally different experience from what we were used to," explained Thurston.
Loaned out to a West Coast unit, he was part of the Marine contingent that fast-roped onto Kandahar airfield - a key piece of terrain that looks very different today.
"None of this was here when we came. We roped to the end of the airfield and immediately began to take some small-arms fire," said Thurston. "We took care of business, but we lost a few Marines here. It wasn't my first time dealing with death, but it still didn't make it
Around that same time, Burtnick, Manley and Copeland would witness their lives change overnight -- a transformation that would eventually land them at the end of that same airfield in Afghanistan.
Burtnick's journey here began in North Hunterdon High School in the Clinton, N.J., township. The future aviation ordnanceman was in American History class when he heard the principal's voice over the school's public address system inform the school of the attacks.
Already serving as a junior firefighter for the town, Burtnick, along with other junior firefighters, ditched school and ran to the firehouse to see if they could help. Located 40 minutes from Ground Zero, the Clinton Fire Department shared close ties with their brethren in New York City - including family members who were fighting for their lives beneath the metal remains of the two towers.
"There was a lot of confusion, and we were watching people come into the fire department and then leave to go help," he explained. "They told us (junior members) that we couldn't go in."
Burtnick and the others did as much as they could without lending direct support. They collected money and food to help in the relief effort, but they could only miss so many days of school.
"I felt helpless not being able do anything more" he added.
Lance Cpl. Ricky Manley was in senior English class in Memphis when he heard the news of the Sept. 11 attacks. Watching on a school's T.V., Manley said that at the time, he was more worried about the people on the street.
"It was kind of crazy seeing the buildings go down," he said.
Afterwards, he found himself enraged and looking for a way to help, something he would later find in the military.
As a self-proclaimed troublemaker, Manley's 9/11 experience ended with a suspension from school the same day - a sobering turn of events that led him to join the Marine Corps, turn his life around, and eventually start a family.
"I was pretty much following my brother," said Manley of his brother, Sgt. B.J. Miller, who serves alongside him in the 24th MEU.
Together, they were two of more than six young men from their senior class to enlist in the Marines after Sept. 11.
"After 9/11 happened, I said, pretty much, 'yeah, I'm going to do it,'" added Manley.
Corporal Joshua Copeland, an AV-8B Harrier embarker, heard the news in accounting class. He said that he spent the rest of the day watching CNN.
"I was real sick to my stomach," he said. "It was crazy watching somebody hit us at home. I couldn't believe it."
Like most high school seniors, Copeland planned on going to college and would eventually go, but his plans would be cut short a few years later after his friend, Ryan Jerabek, died in Iraq.
"It made me want to join," he said. "He was so goal-orientated and his plan was all set; he made me want to go."
Copeland would enlist 23 days later, ultimately landing him in Afghanistan, with 19 other Marines, in the middle of the Global War on Terror.
'Dropping warheads on foreheads'
The job the Marines perform at Kandahar is simple in its concept. Harriers come to Kandahar in need of fuel, maintenance and ordnance. On arrival, they taxi to the end of the airfield, where Marines rush into action with the precision of a pit crew - turning around aircraft in as little as twenty minutes. Each afternoon and into the late hours of the night, they perform their duty, flight after flight.
Between their first flights on Sept. 9 and their last on Sept. 21, the Harriers logged 136 combat sorties in support of NATO forces on the ground. In all, they dropped 17 precision-guided bombs and fired hundreds of rounds from their 25 mm cannons, silencing an unknown number of enemy fighters.
"For years I've built bombs for the ranges outside Yuma, (Ariz.)" explained Burtnick. "Now, when the birds come back empty, I can finally say that we did some damage to somebody. We're out here dropping warheads on foreheads."
For these Marines, being able to make a substantive contribution to the war, even though they're a small part of the effort, has meant a lot to them, said Copeland.
"To come back here, five years to the day, made me feel good as an American and good as a Marine," he said. "There are only 20 of us here, but we're making a difference."
Making a difference, supporting actual combat missions, is something that Marines like Manley have sought since enlisting in the Marines. He believes that war is inevitable, saying that "there is going to be terrorism no matter how hard we fight it."
Despite this, he still feels that everyone is entitled to help and that it's a global problem in which everyone should have a hand. As he explains, "I like being here; it doesn't bother me. We should have been in here a long time ago."
"Fighting terrorism is a never-ending battle," concluded Thurston. "It doesn't matter where they tell us to go. Wherever we go, we're going to do our job."
'I've been waiting to come here'
A year after 9/11, Burtnick was at Ground Zero for the anniversary of the attacks. He had planned to attend the five-year service this September, but fate diverted him to Afghanistan. He doesn't regret the change in plans because here, he doesn't feel helpless anymore.
"I've been waiting to come here for almost four years," explained Burtnick. "My biggest fear in the Marine Corps wasn't deploying; it was spending four years on the sidelines watching my friends deploy overseas."
Burtnick, Manley, Copeland, Thurston and the rest of these Marines go to work each day under the threat of rocket attacks, and they do it to help keep a nation from feeling helpless. They do it to protect from the enemies of freedom the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
American youth continue to defend that right with their blood, knowing that the casualties the nation suffered on Sept. 11 would not end in the streets of Manhattan. The sacrifices continue on foreign battlefields, where our better angels continue to shout down our demons in Iraq and Afghanistan, in buildings, in mountains and at the end of isolated, dusty airstrips.
Airstrips like the one in Kandahar where Copeland honors his fallen friend; where Manley loads ordnance and misses his wife and daughter; where Thurston remembers the dead; and where Burtnick draws his memorial to the FDNY. In that memorial, he never fails to write out six words, etched in felt pen by angry hands.
"Lest we forget our fallen brothers."