Voices: I deployed to Afghanistan days after 9/11. Twenty-one years on, countless vets like me are in an invisible war

·5-min read
Sgt Bill Bee (front row, fourth from left) is seen with his platoon during the War on Terror (Courtesy of Bill Bee)
Sgt Bill Bee (front row, fourth from left) is seen with his platoon during the War on Terror (Courtesy of Bill Bee)

I woke up at 5am at Camp Lejeune, got down from my bunk, slipped into my clothes, and headed for a run with my platoon like any other day.

The mood was oddly relaxed as our unit prepared for its first deployment after a year of training. I had graduated high school a year earlier and had been waiting for my first deployment serving my country.

I showered and was joking around as usual, when my roommate DeCamp poked his head in the door: “Dude, something’s happened.”

The day was September 11, 2001.

Marines were gathered around a radio next door listening as one of the hosts said: “We are hearing that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center.”

At first it sounded like an accident, so I thought nothing of it. Then we turned on the Today Show to watch the live TV coverage. Seconds later, we watched the second plane fly into the South Tower live, while millions of Americans watched through their fingers over breakfast.

“We’re getting hit,” my buddy said. In just a few minutes our lives were forever altered.

Around that time, one of George W. Bush’s aides was whispering in his ear that America was under attack, while he was reading to elementary school children in Florida.

Before the base was put on lockdown we were told to leave as quickly as we could to say goodbye to our families, as it was likely the last we would be seeing them for a while.

Our eyes were glued to the TV, watching the endless coverage of smoke plumes filling the skies above Manhattan, with New Yorkers running for their lives covered in dust and debris.

Instead of going to a bar or trying to spend a last night with a girl, we sat and waited to find out where we were going.

What was unfolding in front of me was Armageddon—an attack on the homeland, an event of such magnitude it was impossible to fathom. It was a darkness that I had never seen and didn’t think was ever possible.

The attack on 9/11 was when I realized how much hatred is in the world. Watching coverage of first responders picking through the rubble of Ground Zero, trying desperately, and with a sliver of hope, to find anyone alive, and seeing the celebrations going on throughout the Middle East filled me with a fury beyond words.

To this day, the images from 9/11 are among the few things on this Earth that will bring a tear to my eye every time.

We stayed by our phones as more details surfaced about who was responsible. All signs coming from the White House pointed to a small group of terrorists in Afghanistan who hated America.

Our panicked families kept calling, trying to figure out the next move and the fate that awaited us.

On September 18, we loaded up our ship and headed for the Mediterranean for joint training with the Egyptians. We knew it wouldn’t be our final destination.

On October 7, the same day President Bush told the nation that the US military was going into Afghanistan, we were on our way to the Arabian Sea. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were the targets, and Osama Bin Laden was now the most wanted man in the world. We were going to be among the first Marine units on the ground.

Little did I know then, it would be my first of four tours of Afghanistan.

I had spent my life preparing to become a Marine, and I knew that my mission was to avenge the New Yorkers picking up the pieces of their families and their beloved city.

In the 21 years since I have also taken a ricochet to the head by a Taliban sniper, held the hands of Marines as they dying, and been in a compound when walls rigged with IEDs exploded.

Twenty-one years have passed and some nights I can still smell a smoke grenade or feel the heat of Afghanistan while standing in the middle of a store.

My pill bottles - with the seven antipsychotic and antidepressant medications - are on the table beside me. They are the band-aid meant to mask that haunting smell of grenade smoke and Afghan heat. They don’t. They are supposed to give me relief during my long waits between Veterans Affairs appointments. They don’t.

Sgt Bill Bee is the Marine in one of the defining photos from the War on Terror. His memoir, The Shot, comes out on 13 September (Courtesy of Bill Bee)
Sgt Bill Bee is the Marine in one of the defining photos from the War on Terror. His memoir, The Shot, comes out on 13 September (Courtesy of Bill Bee)

I have spent many therapy sessions rerunning highlight reel of the most traumatic moments of my career: a sniper shot in 2008 that missed my head by inches, holding the hands of two Marines as they lay dying, the responsibility for the loss of friends in the IED blast that left me with my third traumatic brain injury.

I recount the suicide attempt with two bottles of tequila - where I woke up with my head duct-taped to a fridge and two IV lines in my arms - and too many friends who have either been killed or taken their own lives.

Like me, all they wanted to do was protect their country and find and kill those responsible for 9/11 and anyone who would support them.

It was the morning that changed the lives of Marines and millions of others forever. It sparked wars that have killed more than 900,000 people of all nationalities and has led to a dire surge in veterans needing care at home.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I remember the few minutes that changed everything. The rage at what happened has never changed. The same enemy we’ve fought for the past two decades has not changed, though they are once again running Afghanistan doing their best to destroy any hope of freedom. The list of the dead changes though, as those who fought there continue to take their own lives.

Sgt Bill Bee is the Marine in one of the defining photos from the War on Terror. He wasn’t wearing a helmet or Kevlar vest when a Taliban sniper round hit a wall inches from his head in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2008. Sgt Bee’s memoir, The Shot, comes out on 13 September. Order a copy here.