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Born after 9/11, a generation goes to war

Trevor Yarborough, 17, Kadie Weston, 17, and Connor Gadson-Yarbrough, 18, supervise their NJROTC classmates while preparing for the Iron Bear Challenge at Robinson High School in Tampa. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Many were infants on Oct. 7, 2001, the day the United States unleashed Operation Enduring Freedom and began the Afghanistan War. Some had yet to be born.

So as the 18th anniversary of America’s longest war approaches, it’s not surprising that the newest military recruits have no emotional connection to the events of September 11.

“It doesn’t feel as serious as it must have been to the older generations,” says Isabelle Acevedo, an 18-year-old Air Force ROTC cadet at the University of South Florida. Acevedo is one of a number of local teens who told the Tampa Bay Times they intend to join the military, but aren’t sure why U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan or what prompted the war that has lasted their entire lifetime.

Experts say September 11 means different things to the two generations that came of age in its shadow.

Millennials, born before 1996, have personal memories of the attacks and their immediate aftermath, said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Tex. He said it later prompted many to enlist.

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Members of Gen Z, born after 1996, rely on an interpretation of the attacks and their meaning. They’ve grown up desensitized to global terrorism. Their lives were much more affected by mass shootings across the country, especially in schools.

This generational divide has forced recruiters and ROTC leaders to change approaches when discussing deployments and modern-day military service.

Recruitment has always been hard, with each generation providing unique challenges, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the California-based Rand Corporation. During the Cold War, few felt the need to enlist during what was generally a time of peace. Public support for the military faltered in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

After 9/11, interest in military service spiked, driven by a sense of patriotism.

That interest has slowed over the last few years, said Capt. Nicholas Pine of the U.S. Army Tampa Recruiting Battalion.

Recruits today ask more about educational benefits and job opportunities than older millennials. They want to know more about daily military life and turn to social media for answers.

Trevor Yarborough, 17, a senior in the Navy Junior ROTC program at Robinson High School, said he regularly sees ads showing military drills on YouTube and follows recruiters on Instagram.

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“I see all the time the stuff they do,” he said.

Yet with almost infinite access to information online, recruits who grew up in a digital world can still struggle to discern fact from fiction.

Dispelling online rumors is one of the biggest new challenges recruiters face, Pine said. For instance, there’s a misconception that all those who enlist will only go to war and not work engineering jobs or other non-combat tasks.

Recruiting strategies aren’t all that’s changed.

New technologies such as drones are reducing manpower needs while cyber attacks have redefined warfare. The various branches are working more closely together. Multiple combat tours are the new normal.

“It’s a different war now,” said Elliott Berman, a Navy veteran and commander of Robinson High School’s ROTC program

Increasingly, it’s being fought by a different soldier. The removal of barriers for women is a significant factor in their representing 18 percent of enlistments in the Army this year, according to local recruiters.

The changes inspire 17-year-old Kadie Weston, also in Robinson High School’s ROTC program.

“Women want to serve as much as men,” she said. “I know the saying that it’s a man’s world but I feel that soon it’s going to be a woman’s world.”

These new recruits will likely face new challenges once they become veterans.

People who served after the September 11 attacks were twice as likely to face combat compared to previous veterans so they are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than earlier generations, a new Pew Research Center study found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to improve medical services for the growing number of female veterans who will require specialized treatments as they age.

But for everything that’s changed in the world since 2001, the core reasons driving people toward military service remain the same.

Dalton Hongell, 18, is a member of USF’s Air Force ROTC program. He was an infant lying on his mother’s bed on a military base when the first plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. His aunt had to take care of him after his mother deployed.

Though the attacks directly affected his early upbringing, what drives him is a commitment to his mother’s legacy and a sense of pride. Hongell plans to join the Air Force.

“It’s a duty that needs to be done,” he said.

Today, roughly half of enlistments are continuing a family legacy, Army recruiters say.

The Tampa Bay area, home to MacDill Air Force Base and the largest retired veteran population in Florida, has supplied new recruits across multiple wars.

The youngest ones may not fully grasp how the September 11 attacks changed the world, but they still respect it as a key moment in history, said Maggie Liott, 18, an Air Force ROTC cadet.

They say they wish there was greater public discussion about the Afghanistan War and what military service means in 2019.

Connor Gadson-Yarbrough, 18, who plans to join the Navy, said that for some, what matters is the chance to serve their country.

“Somebody has to do it,” Gadson-Yarbrough said.

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© 2019 the Tampa Bay Times