10 years after 9/11: Marines, sailors honor victims, fallen brothers in Sangin
Story by Cpl. Benjamin Crilly
SANGIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan – Aaron Denning always knew he wanted to become a Marine. He was just shy of a month into his freshman year at Royal High School and it was September of 2001. In a matter of days his life and the world changed forever.
The Simi Valley, Calif. native, like most people on the West Coast, woke up to the unfolding events on national television and continued to follow the events for the remainder of the day.
“I remember waking up shortly after six o’clock in the morning. My mom was already watching the news,” said Sgt. Denning, the team chief of Advisor Team 2 assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “Then, just like every other day, I walked to school. Once I got to school, we didn’t do anything in every one of my classes, each classroom had the news and we all just watched in awe.”
Everyone can recall the mixed emotions of fear, anger and astonishment that pulsed through their veins as they witnessed the most deadly act of terrorism on U.S. soil. Their stories vary, but for the majority of them their daily lives were put on hold as the world became a very small place full of danger.
“That day brought life to a shocking halt, but I remember what my history teacher told us ‘this is going to change everyone’s life,’” reminisced the Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran. “When the war kicked off, I remember thinking that I wouldn’t get a chance to do my part for our nation. I enlisted before I graduated high school and shipped off for boot camp within a week of graduating.”
On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Denning and the other Marines and sailors of 1/5 are doing their part serving in Sangin. Their dedication and diligence on a daily basis honors the memory of those lost in the attacks and their fallen brothers who paid the ultimate price for freedom over the past decade serving overseas.
Across the U.S., people remember and commemorate the anniversary with moments of silence, prayers and memorial services. Out here in the heart of Afghanistan, service members do the same by carrying out their everyday duties and missions within Sangin.
Whether it is their first, second, third or sixth deployment, the attacks in some way affected a lot of the men and woman who volunteered to serve in the armed forces during a time of war. For some the decision came as their way of ensuring their homeland was secure.
“I waited all throughout high school and the war was still going. I knew without a doubt that that is where I needed to be,” said Denning, who turned down his acceptance to the Citadel, a military academy and civilian university, to enlist. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to do my part to defend the nation if I was in school for four more years. So I put school off and enlisted.”
For others like Walnut Creek, Calif., native Seaman Jordan Baker, a hospital corpsman with 1/5, it was the desire to use their skills to help others in harm’s way.
“It felt weird having someone attack our country. It’s something that you don’t ever want to have happen again. I enlisted in 2009, to do my part for our country and do what I can,” said Baker, a 2006 graduate of Las Lomas High School. “I was an emergency medical technician before so I figured I could use what I learned there to help out the Marines here.”
“I definitely feel like I am doing a lot more deployed on 9/11 than my friends back home,” said Baker, who was wounded in action last month. “It’s a sense of patriotism that the majority of Americans will never feel.”
For some, like Lance Cpl. David Makara, a team leader for 1st Platoon, Company B, the decision to sign up was founded on patriotism and the injustice of the attacks.
“It’s not right for someone to come into our backyard, attack us and get away with it,” said Lansing, Mich., native Makara, who was 11-years-old when 9/11 occurred. “When I enlisted I felt that on behalf of the people who were killed and their families, justice needs to be served.
“Everyone will remember that day and I think that is a good thing, but remembering the day out here is a whole different story,” said Makara. “We don’t want to give the enemy the upper hand or think that they got one up on us. So for me it’s just another day.”
“The attacks are something you think about on patrol. I am very proud to serve my country, to take part in putting things right for all those people and families who were hurt,” said Denning, who was also deployed to Nawa, Afghanistan in September of 2009. “But as far as patrolling on 9/11, it doesn’t change a thing. The Marine Corps is the most professional and effective fighting force in the world.
“It doesn’t matter what country I am in, what enemy I am fighting or what day it is, whether it be my birthday, Christmas or 9/11,” said Denning, “I am going to go out there every single day and do my job like I was trained to do it, to the best of my abilities and accomplish my mission, whatever it is, because that is just what Marines do.”
“The fact that 10 years later we are still patrolling in one of the most deadly places on earth, shows that we still care no matter what the cost,” said Makara, who was wounded in action on this deployment.
Since 2001, more than 5,900 U.S. service members have made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and the security of the nation. On this deployment alone, 1/5 has suffered 16 Marines killed in action including others attached from other units while conducting combat operations against enemy forces.
“The further and further we get away from September 11, the more and more it seems Americans have put it in the past. We haven’t seen a loss of life like that on U.S. soil since we started the War on Terror,” said Denning. “There are a lot of young Americans who go out here every day and they put everything they have on the line – all their yesterdays, all their todays, and all the tomorrows – to keep it that way.”
For Marines like Denning, who can name at least one fellow Marine killed in action for every month of the year, his actions on 9/11 is how he remembers those who gave their today for the nation’s tomorrow.
“It’s tough to put into words. If you stay in (the Marine Corps) for six years and look back at how many of your friends got hurt or how many of your friends didn’t make it home, being here on 9/11 means something more,” said Denning. “You have a personal investment in this war and I don’t think we should call it quits until it is done right, because that isn’t how you honor their sacrifice.”
The Marines and sailors of 1/5 honor the victims and their brothers who have gone before them by patrolling the streets of Sangin to accomplish the mission they have been assigned. They know their actions are what set them apart in how they commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“There is a time and place for things and emotions. When you are outside the wire you have to be very careful about what emotions you let take control of you,” said Denning.
Editor’s note: 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment is a subordinate unit of Regimental Combat Team 8 and is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command Southwest and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.