VIDEO: 20 years from 9/11, and a long war on terror in its wake

It was bad, but even so, it was initially thought to be nothing more than a horrible accident when an American Airline passenger jet crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 8:46 EDT on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Nothing that disastrous had ever happened before, and then it happened again, just 17 minutes later, when a United Airlines jet crashed into the South Tower. Any thoughts of that being an unbelievably tragic coincidence disappeared when another American Airline jet slammed into the west side of the Pentagon.

A fourth plane, later believed to have been headed to the White House or the Capitol, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

It was the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, killing 2,977 and injuring more than 25,000 people.

And, while it wasn’t the first, it was certainly the last time that virtually all of America was on one side, and most of the world was on America’s side as well.

One of the first orders of business following the attacks was revenge and retaliation. In a speech to the nation and Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush, in announcing his War on Terror, said, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and disabled.”

By mid-October, the U.S. became involved in an avenging war—one that few people protested initially—and sent troops to Afghanistan to hunt down the terrorists, in particular, Osama bin Laden, thought to be the mastermind of the attack, thus beginning what would turn out to be a 20-year war in the landlocked country of Afghanistan fighting an enemy that was born in battle and expert at fighting and overcoming world powers in the country’s impossible terrain.

Great Britain had no success against Afghanistan, Russia, too, had failed, and now, America. By the time it was over, it was America’s longest war, five months longer than Vietnam.

President Joe Biden declared an end to our troops’ involvement in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, an occasion marked by chaos and the killing of 13 American troops, and so the two events—the Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attack and the long war in Afghanistan are inextricably entwined and are both reaching the 20-year milestone just weeks apart.

Over those two decades, about 2,300 U.S. troops were killed. When you add the war in Iraq to the list of post-9/11 wars, some 7,057 U.S. troops died; 14 of them from Long Beach. The more stunning and haunting figure is the more than 30,000 deaths by suicide by U.S. veterans, a number that will continue to grow each day.

To mark the 20-year milestones of 9/11 and its subsequent war in Afghanistan, we talked to three Long Beach veterans who served at various times in the war. They talked openly about why they enlisted, their experiences in the country and in battle, what they learned about the war and themselves, and how they continue to grapple with the memories, post-traumatic stress disorder and the alarming number of veterans who commit suicides every day in America as well as how they feel about the war’s ending. Was it worth it for the country? For them, personally?

Although we have edited about three hours worth of interviews down to about 30 minutes, we’ve also provided videos of the interviews in their entirety and urge you to watch them. They’re brutally honest, heartbreaking at times, and always courageous.

Watch the full interviews:

Nivardo Gonzalez, Marine Corps corporal, in Afghanistan 2011-2013

Ryan Antes, Army Ranger corporal, in Afghanistan and Iraq 1999-2003

Felicia Wieser, sergeant, Army intelligence, in Afghanistan 2016-2020


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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.