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Richmond-area natives who enlisted after 9/11 find continued purpose after military service
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Richmond-area natives who enlisted after 9/11 find continued purpose after military service

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Editor’s note: As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is running a series of stories all week in remembrance.

When the twin towers fell. When the Pentagon was hit. When the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The lives of every American changed.

The attacks sparked two wars, one of which became the longest in U.S. history ending just last month as the last troops left Afghanistan, and inspired a generation of young men — and for the first time, women — to fight on the front lines.

For two Richmond-area natives who enlisted following the Sept. 11 attacks, that day didn’t just send them to war, but on a path to find purpose even after their military service.

For some, the decision to enlist was almost immediate: like Ben King, who was taking time off college in Washington, D.C., while trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life.

“If we go to war, I’ll sign up,” King remembers telling a friend on Sept. 11, 2001.

More people enlisted in the military in the 12 months following the 9/11 attacks than they have in any year since, according to the Military Times.

In the military, King found motivation, and an ideal to work toward. When that fell apart, he found purpose in honoring the fallen, which he continues to this day. King, who grew up in Church Hill, is now the operations director at the Virginia War Memorial.

For others, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, took time to manifest their impact.

Phil Trezza was only 16 then. He was taking vocational classes at Hermitage High School, planning to become an electrician.

“That changed that day,” Trezza said. “Clearly, it changed the trajectory of my life.”

It was years later that Trezza joined the Army and became a combat medic, looking after soldiers on the front lines. Now, he’s still looking out for service members as they prepare to leave the military as the director of transition and employment for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

***

On Sept. 11, 2001, King, then 21, was headed to Radio Shack, where he worked while taking the year off from American University. On his car radio, he heard the morning talk-show host mention something happening, but he thought it was maybe a skit or a bit.

By the time he’d gotten to work in Tenleytown, a D.C. neighborhood about 7 miles north of the Pentagon, power to the entire city had been shut off.

Planes had already crashed into both towers in New York and the Pentagon, he said during a recent interview.

King and some guys he worked with were standing outside the store when a police officer pulled up.

“This is the kind of thing you go to war over,” King recalled the officer saying.

To which he responded, “If we go to war, I’ll sign up. I’ll go, too.”

A couple of days later, his parents visited. At dinner, the conversation turned to the eventuality of war.

“I’m going to join the military,” he told them. “I remember my mom, she cried, and my dad kind of got a look of pride.”

Both of his grandfathers had served, but there hadn’t been any expectation that he’d serve. But the idea had always lingered. King was an Eagle Scout, had been the captain of the high school football team, and joined a fraternity in college.

“I grew up following a path which, years later, decades later, my anthropology professor described as the typical American militarized male,” King said. “I’ll never forget that the professor’s argument was this is how the American male gets militarized is by doing these things. I don’t know if he’s right or not, but it felt like that was the edge that I liked to be on. ... I wanted to prove myself physically and mentally and see if I had what it took.”

By joining the military, King thought he could fit in and make himself invulnerable to the hardships he’d experienced earlier. When he was 10, his younger brother accidentally drowned. Later, his mother got ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive nervous system disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.

“I thought I could fit into America’s story there,” he said. “I really believed that if I could get through the Iraq War honorably, and experience some of the hardship of war, then I would come back and live happily ever after, right? It’s like the end of an ’80s action movie. You kick ass, you get the girl, everything’s great.”

He joined the Army in April 2002 and deployed to Iraq in 2006. He was part of a psychological operations team that served as an intermediary between the Army and the Iraqi public.

“We built rapport; we did surrender appeals; we tried to solve problems, without violence,” King said.

Most of the time, he said there was this sense of accomplishment at the job they were doing. It was important, and they did well, King said.

But the other 1% of the time “was harrowing,” King said. “It was IEDs and snipers and getting blown up.”

On New Year’s Eve, as 2006 turned to 2007, an improvised explosive device blew through the Humvee that he was driving. Before going out that night, he’d been briefed that there would be one of these bombs on their route.

The order were supposed to be: “Turn left instead of right. Do not turn right,” he said. “Well, it got mixed up in translation. And so we turned right, when we were supposed to have turned left. So turning right, we turned right into the IED.”

“I’d always thought I would like lose a limb or something, but I never figured I’d die,” he said. “I just survived by the skin of my teeth. It hit our vehicle, like, one second too late or one second too early or however you want to look at it.”

The explosive blew the steering column onto his groin. He was medically evacuated to a hospital, and at the stroke of midnight, he was “getting an ultrasound in a very vulnerable position,” he said. He has a picture to prove it. In it, he’s wearing a New Year’s Eve hat and flanked by two other soldiers who’d been in other Humvees also hit by IEDs. Their drivers didn’t make it, King said.

“My goal was to like, to show up as this kind of warrior that I wanted myself to be and then, to be tested, and then survive,” he said. “I thought I did it, I really did.”

King earned a Purple Heart.

A week later, he was back out on another mission, he said. The Army had him talk to a therapist, who asked him how he was feeling.

“I was like, I feel really good. Like, I feel like this was the pivotal moment and I don’t feel fear, I’m not afraid. Send me back out, let’s go,” King remembers telling the therapist.

He came home in 2007. For six months, he continued to feel that way, he said.

“There was just this tremendous sense of confidence and ease,” he said. “I just felt like I had done the job that I had been asked to do, honorably, and that I could stand toe to toe with anyone.”

That included his grandfather, who like many World War II veterans, “never talked about it,” King said. “And I remember coming home and thinking, all right, now we can have some conversations. He still didn’t talk about it.”

Slowly, or maybe, it was all of sudden, King said, this ideal he believed he’d achieved started to crumble.

“I start having just massive anxiety,” he said. He’d go days without sleep. “All these emotions that I had experienced before, on a scale of 1 to 10, we’re now showing up on a scale of 1 to 16.”

It was post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I would go into these places where I’d experienced sounds differently,” he described. “The voice in my head changed. It became kind of this weird robotic, kind of like awful kind of sound in my mind.”

Suicide began to look like relief, he said.

“Out of desperation, I tried yoga,” he said. That helped soothe his body. But his mind was still jumbled and noisy. A friend recommended a mindful mediation practice at the local Veterans Affairs hospital.

It worked.

“I felt quiet,” he remembered. “From that moment on, I began to think, well, maybe I can, maybe I can help other veterans with this.”

He worked with the teacher to bring the practice to the wider warrior community. Their first attempt was a flop: trying to promote mindfulness based on its scientific effectiveness. But in 2014, King helped start a nonprofit called the Mindful Memorial Foundation, which honors every service member who has died since 9/11 through the practice of mindfulness.

The nonprofit’s inaugural event took place at Arlington National Cemetery, where they honored 6,904 fallen service members. The name of each man or woman is written on a yellow ribbon and given to another veteran for a “mindful moment of gratitude.”

He’s carried the practice to the Virginia War Memorial, which last year opened a new wing to its Shrine of Memory, honoring Virginians lost in the war after 9/11. The new open air pavilion has 179 names inscribed in glass, with room for more.

“There’s a deep peace here,” King said as he gazed up at the names.

There’s also grief and loss. But King said he meets those dark thoughts with moments of mindfulness.

“If the ultimate sacrifice is ‘required for freedom to flourish,’” King said, quoting the sentiment etched on the shrine’s entrance, “we match it with open-hearted gratitude.”

As Americans now look back at the wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the 20 years since 9/11, King said none of the current political discourse around whether we should have been there or what was accomplished there should affect how we honor those who were killed.

“That will never take away from the honor that was expressed over there by our service members,” King said.

***

Phil Trezza remembered his high school teacher wheeled a cart with a large television into his classroom the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and turned on the news.

The first tower had been hit, but newscasters, and the class, were still conjecturing what happened. Had it been an accident?

But as the high schoolers, and the world, watched as the second World Trade Center tower was hit by a plane, they knew.

“There’s nothing special about me or my experience, but I think that kind of everybody, especially in that age group, you’re trying to figure out the world,” Trezza said. “And then when that happened, it really affected me clearly. It affected the trajectory of my life from that point on.”

Soon after that, Trezza’s teacher had the entire class take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, an aptitude test developed by the Department of Defense.

“I don’t think I had decided that day,” he said. He obviously had to wait for a couple of years until he was of eligible age to enlist. By that time, the U.S. had not only started fighting in Afghanistan, but Iraq, as well.

Trezza thought of his grandfathers, who had served but, like King’s hadn’t shared openly, and others who had fought in World War II and the conflicts in the Gulf and Vietnam.

“This was kind of a responsibility of our generation,” he said. “This is what I should be doing.”

He was also curious. He’d watched the news and read the paper, but wanted to experience it for himself. He knew little about the military.

“I didn’t even know there was like different jobs,” Trezza said. “I thought everyone just had the same job: do pushups, and you run around and shoot guns and stuff.”

A recruiter who bought coffee at the 7-Eleven where Trezza worked had encouraged him to think about what he wanted to do when he got out.

“Why don’t you learn something while you’re in so you can use it once you get out,” he remembers the recruiter saying.

That’s how be became a combat medic. He enlisted in March 2004. Basic training was the hardest thing he’d ever done, he said.

“It sucks,” he said. “But it’s supposed to suck.”

He got assigned to the 3rd Infantry Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which was a Stryker Brigade Combat Team stationed out of Tacoma, Wash.

“I was with primarily cavalry scouts and infantrymen. Basically, I was a medic for a platoon of tough dudes on the front line,” he said.

He had worried he’d get stuck in a hospital, but he’d lucked out, he said.

“They’re kind of a special class of people, if you think about it, because a lot of those guys, they joined just like I did, after the war already started. And they were just as gung-ho as you could get.”

In 2006, they deployed to southern Baghdad in Iraq.

“It became real for me the day we were leaving,” he said. He was in his early 20s and the only medic for a platoon of 20 or 30. He was single with no family of his own. The wife of one of the soldiers in his unit told Trezza: “Bring him back safe, doc.”

He’d think about her words as they went on patrol, going though different scenarios or what might happen.

“I was afraid to let them down,” he remembered.

The Stryker team is named for the vehicle, an armored personnel carrier, that they use. They had four of those Stryker APCs, each of which hit two IEDs over the 15 months he spent in Iraq, he said.

“Luckily, all of my people came back with their lives and with their limbs,” Trezza said. “We had a handful of Purple Hearts, for like shrapnel and things like that. And a couple of trucks that may not have made it, but all the people made it.”

His deployment lasted 15 months. Originally, it was supposed to be only a year, but about three-quarters of the way in, Trezza said, they got the “happy message” that their stay had been extended. Trezza chuckled when he said “happy message.”

Trezza said he often had to treat Iraqi civilians. One of the most harrowing moments of his deployment was after a car bomb went off on a busy street corner. He saw it explode and the 20 or 30 people it hit. He was the first medic on scene.

“There’s certainly nothing special about my story. But there’s something special about a lot of people of that generation, that made that decision. You know, because when you’re signing that line, you know, there’s not only one war, but two wars really going on, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Chances are, you’re going to one of them. That’s a special class of people. I think it’s defining. 9/11 kind of defined that generation.”

After his tour, Trezza came home to Virginia and transitioned into the reserves, where he served for another 10 years.

“I got to the point where some of the guys and gals that were coming in, they had no memory of 9/11,” he said. “At one point, you had people fighting in a war that they weren’t even alive during 9/11.”

History will have to determine whether we stayed too long and what we learned out of all of this, he said during a recent interview as the final American troops were pulling out of Afghanistan. Even in 2006 and 2007, people back home wondered why we were still there, Trezza said.

“I just hope that we get some best practice, some lessons learned from this whole experience,” he said. “I don’t know how much we learned from Vietnam, maybe not much. So maybe we’ll learn a little bit from this.”

“For me, it was easy to justify, because my main job was just to keep my friends alive,” he said. “That seemed like an honorable mission, at least for me.”

When he left the service, he joined the Virginia Department of Veterans Services as it was starting a program that helped medics and corpsmen find jobs once they left military service. Now, he runs the program, along with several others that help service members and their spouses transition to civilian life.

“I kind of found my place,” he said. “As long as I’m able to help, and you know, have a purpose, that’s what it’s all about. I think a lot of folks that signed up during that time, that’s what they were looking for.”

arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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