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How the motivation to join the Marine Corps has changed since 9/11

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The day will always be a solemn one. But now that American troops are no longer at war, the terrorist attacks are fading into history. NPR's Tom Bowman traveled to the Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where new recruits were born several years after 9/11.

UNIDENTIFIED DRILL INSTRUCTOR #1: Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It's still pitch black, and Marine recruits scurry under spotlights, stacking their weapons and packs, all under the constant screams of drill instructors looming over them.

UNIDENTIFIED DRILL INSTRUCTOR #1: Morning, gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED DRILL INSTRUCTOR #2: Morning, gentlemen.

BOWMAN: Soon, they're filing into a cavernous auditorium, a long flowing stream of shaved heads and green T-shirts. It's time for a history lesson with Staff Sergeant Mark Anthony Ross.

MARK ANTHONY ROSS: Hey, by a show of hands, who was born after the September 11 attacks?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: (Inaudible).

ROSS: Hey, most of us, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: Yes, sir.

ROSS: Hey, put your hands down.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: Aye, sir.

ROSS: Do we know what happened during the 9/11 attacks?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: Yes, sir.

ROSS: You know what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: What, sir?

ROSS: To the ones that may not know what happened, what was going on was our country was under attack from the terrorists. Make sense?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: Aye, sir.

ROSS: They came within our borders and then attacked us from the inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE RECRUITS: Aye, sir.

BOWMAN: One of the drill sergeants outside was in kindergarten when 9/11 happened. And Sergeant Ross? He was just 8 years old when the towers were hit. For most Americans, 9/11 is now simply a day to mark, much like December 7 with the Pearl Harbor attacks. Even the military war colleges are moving on. The talk is not of 9/11, the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and lessons learned, but of China and new weapons needed. Recruits are not signing up to fight like their predecessors who joined in a flurry of anger and patriotism. There are more than 200 recruits in this class. And Sergeant Ross asks, who wants to go to war? Only a smattering of hands go up. Today they're looking for benefits, college money or, like Angel Benites, 23, personal improvement.

ANGEL BENITES: I want to develop a warrior ethos, a code, a way of living, more ethics, more morals. That's why I joined - and because it's difficult. I go towards the difficult things.

BOWMAN: For 18-year-old Kendall Miller, it's more a call to service.

KENDALL MILLER: I love my country. I love the United States. And I wanted to do anything I could help. I'm able bodied. I can help any way I can.

BOWMAN: Forty-year-old Sergeant Major Alkedra Tyler was drawn to the Marines as a high school student for an opportunity to travel and get an education. Then 9/11 happened. Tyler was 18, already signed with the Marines and working as a nursing home aide. She glanced at a TV and saw the towers burning.

ALKEDRA TYLER: I literally thought, oh, my God. And then I thought, how many people are in that building?

BOWMAN: She called her recruiter and asked if she could leave for boot camp sooner.

TYLER: The recruiter was like, are you sure you want to do this? And I said, yes, I want to do this. Did you not see what happened on the news? I want to do this. So he asked me how soon did I want to leave? And I was like, I'll leave tomorrow if you tell me I can leave tomorrow.

BOWMAN: She ended up with multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, fixing generators in local villages. A few years later, First Sergeant Brian Dear joined up to fight, too, still eager to avenge 9/11.

BRIAN DEAR: In recruit training, that's all they pitched to us - going to war, going to war, going to war, going to war.

BOWMAN: What was it, 2005, right?

DEAR: And that's what we all wanted.

BOWMAN: You're definitely going to war.

DEAR: And we're all talking about, I can't wait to go to war. You know, I don't want this to ever happen in my country again.

BOWMAN: When he worked as a drill sergeant in 2016, there was still an ongoing military mission in Afghanistan.

DEAR: So it was easy. You know, I used to tell my recruits, a good majority of you are going to go. Now I can't use that. Now what we're using are benefits - educational benefits, VA loan. Those are the things that we're using to keep motivating them. They can't pay for college, so that's why they join the Marine Corps.

BOWMAN: Even among these young Marine recruits, a few still feel the tug, the sadness of 9/11. Jake McKay, 18, says a close family friend died in one of the towers.

JAKE MCKAY: The story is - what we heard is that he was helping people evacuate. He ran in and was helping people get out.

BOWMAN: Into one of the towers.

MCKAY: Yes, sir. And he was crushed by a support beam, and it broke his legs. So I feel like it's still a recovery with my family. There's still pain that comes around, but...

BOWMAN: It's kind of fading a bit.

MCKAY: It's fading. It's becoming more of a remembrance than a grief.

BOWMAN: John Michael Vigiano steps into the shade after training on an obstacle course with his fellow recruits. He's drenched in sweat, pulls off his helmet and gloves. September 11 is never far from his thoughts. His father was a New York City police detective that morning and rushed into one of the towers with other cops. He didn't make it out. An uncle also died that day.

JOHN MICHAEL VIGIANO: It's my life, and it's something that I think about every year, every day.

BOWMAN: His mother was also a cop - on leave and caring for him. He was just 3 months old.

VIGIANO: She said that I saved her life because I kept her out of work, and she was focusing on me rather than all the dark things that are going on in the world.

BOWMAN: At the family home on Long Island is a kind of shrine to his dad. There's a portrait in the dining room, along with his ID card, badge and medals he earned over the years. And today, even though he's still in training, they'll all reach out.

VIGIANO: We just try to stay together as a family, whether that be getting lunch or having a barbecue. We just sit together, and we talk between me and my two brothers and my grandmother, my mother.

BOWMAN: He says he'll do his time in the Marines, then head back to New York to become a firefighter like his grandfather.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Parris Island, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.