Andrew Schneider - Houston Public Media
Bryan Escobedo was 16 years old and attending League City's Clear Creek High School in the fall of 2001. He was heading to second period when a classmate whose parents worked for the government said the country was being attacked.
"Everybody laughed at her," Escobedo said. "And then we walked to class and the principal came on and said ‘today, September 11, 2001, is a day that will live in infamy,’ and he said ‘turn on your TV sets.'”
Escobedo and his classmates watched as the second plane hit the South tower of the World Trade Center.
“That moment that I knew that we were at war,” he said. “I knew, and at 16 years old, I decided I’m joining the Marines."
Escobedo's older brother and his cousin joined up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well. Escobedo himself would sign his enlistment contract on his seventeenth birthday, shipping out for boot camp a week after he turned 18. He said he choose the Marines because he believed they were the toughest branch.
"I wasn’t particularly like a tough guy or anything," Escobedo said, "but…I knew that I had the heart and will to do this if someone would just train me and make me strong."
A few miles north, at San Jacinto College, Mia Garcia had made a similar decision. She'd actually decided to join the Marine Corps a few weeks earlier — also because she believed it was the toughest branch — but she hadn't told her parents yet. That changed once the news broke on TVs across campus.
"I left school and went home, and I watched the rest of it. And then I remember telling my parents that I joined the Marine Corps, which they were very surprised at," Garcia said. “I’ll always remember my dad’s reaction whenever I told him I was joining was that, ‘well, at least you have a reason now.’"
John Smith had already joined the Marines in 1999, and said he was bored with his civilian job as a machinist. On September 11, 2001, Smith was stationed at MCAS New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he heard word of the attacks on the Howard Stern Show. The base went into lockdown almost immediately.
"Then they started requesting volunteers to get ready to deploy, and of course I was eagerly, you know, ready to deploy and so I signed up and they sent me down to Norfolk, Virginia to kind of get the ships ready for everybody to onboard," Smith said.
Al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, but Smith, Garcia, and Escobedo all found themselves being deployed to Iraq.
Garcia served in supply and finished her 11-month tour there unscathed. Smith, assigned to support for aviation, also served an 11-month tour. He was sent to Bahrain after having his elbow injured by an IED. Escobedo, a combat engineer, served three tours in Iraq. On his third deployment, he was in a convoy north of the Euphrates River when his vehicle hit a landmine.
"We all got injured," Escobedo said, "and my Purple Heart is for multiple blast injuries, broken nails, cracked jaw, cracked spine, burns and shrapnel, perforated both my ear drums exploded again, because this was not my first one, and traumatic brain injury, and then of course post-traumatic stress."
Escobedo spent a month in the hospital, and the Marine Corps initially reassigned him to intelligence work as he rehabilitated in Iraq. Following that, he said the Corps took excellent care of him, with a combination of physical therapy, mental health counseling, and training in jujitsu and meditation.
"It was an intensive program. It was like being it was like an eight-hour workday. And it really, if it weren’t for that I would not be here," Escobedo said. "A lot of people may think that the military won’t help you, but you have to say I need help. If you raise your hand and say I need assistance, they have the best programs in the world to help you out."
Escobedo, Garcia, and Smith now all work for Combined Arms, a Houston-based nonprofit helping veterans adjust to civilian life. The anniversary of 9/11 is always a rough time for them.
"I didn’t lose anyone that I was terribly close to during my time," Mia Garcia said, “but I do have friends that did. And you know, every time that that time comes around or maybe the date that they survived (and) their friend next to them didn’t, you know, we’re brothers and sisters in arms, so I hold that grief with them."
Garcia's role with Combined Arms includes making sure veterans have access to all the resources they need, including mental health counseling.
"During this time," Garcia said, "we’ve been very intentional with making sure that all of the veterans and those that that support veterans, veteran spouses, have access to mental health, whether they be talking to someone or having one on one with a professional mental health counselor."
John Smith and Bryan Escobedo each said the anniversary carries extra weight this year, coming on the heels of America's departure from Afghanistan and the fall of the U.S.-allied government to the Taliban.
"It’s not just one emotion. Like when September 11 happened, it was anger and, you know, sadness. In this case, it’s disappointment, it’s anger, it’s frustration, it's a sense of betrayal. There’s a lot of feelings. There's a sense of self-doubt, like ‘were we a part of something that didn’t matter?’" Escobedo said.
"We all face things that we’re not able to control," Smith said. "It’s just hard to comprehend all of that work and effort regressing right now, and so it’s a little heart-aching."
Bryan Escobedo said twenty years is a long time to commit while not having a clear plan — all while sacrificing military lives. He said he wants the public to learn from the experiences of his generation of veterans.
"If anything, I want the public to learn. When the war drum starts to beat, ask ‘why? How long? How many lives?’ Because if we’re not asking those questions, if we don’t put public pressure on this, we can make the same mistakes again," Escobedo said.
Beyond that, Escobedo said he wants his fellow veterans to understand that what ultimately happened in Afghanistan and Iraq was not their fault.
"I lost 14 Marines and my own cousin over there and I wish I could get them back," Escobedo said. "And if I were to meet him, the ghost of my cousin, and if he were to ask me, ‘Was my life worth it?' I’d have to say, ‘well, I don’t think so. I don’t think it was, because we failed monumentally. You were a good warrior. I was a good warrior, but the decision makers at the top failed us. They failed you. They failed me. They failed everybody, and that’s a really hard pill to swallow.’"
US Marine Corps (USMC) personnel assigned to 1st Regimental Combat Team (RCT1), administer aid to injured Marines, Iraqi civilian, and Iraqi soldiers after battling to clear the Main Supply Route (MSR) on Route 7, in the vicinity of An Nasiriyah, Iraq, during the Iraq War.