Every Veterans Day, images of friends in uniform spread across my Facebook and I remember my time in the service. I am one of the fastest growing groups of veterans—veterans of the Global War on Terror.
This year we commemorated the 18th anniversary of the event that started the campaign, the attacks of 9/11 and I realized that I have now spent half my life before that day and half my life after that day. That event creates a clear division of our society, one of peace and one continual fear.
Unlike my parents, I don’t have memories of school drills in anticipation of nuclear bombs. For much of my childhood, the Cold War and fear of nuclear war was over, and the United States could focus on economic prosperity and strengthening our education system, not building up arms. The thought that we should prepare to root out terrorists from caves did not even cross our minds.
Then it happened.
Planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The whole world changed.
A president that centered his campaign on education reform now became a war-time president. He was fighting a war not against another country, but small groups of people that moved fluidly from one area to another.
Our military was not prepared for this. It was used to large land campaigns, like the one during Desert Storm. The Abrams tank and its firepower helped quickly push Saddam Hussein to retreat back within his borders.
I remember visiting the Lima Tank Plant during a family day, invited by my uncle who worked there, and watching these massive machines in action. They had served the U.S. so well for so many years, but this same weapon could not maneuver in the mountains of Afghanistan. Thus, we felt the adjustments here as the Lima Tank Plant became known as Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, highlighting its new purpose of supplying a variety of vehicles such as Stryker Vehicles and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle that were smaller and more mobile, and of more use in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As mentioned, I have now spent half my life in the pre-9/11 world and half in the post-9/11 world. This means I was 18 that fateful day and spent my formative young adult years in the immediate aftermath. 9/11 impacted many of my age but I felt it deeply since I had decided to join the U.S. Air Force prior to 9/11. I stepped on to The Ohio State University campus on September 13, 2001, as a new student and a new Air Force ROTC cadet. I would spend the next four years studying to be a nurse and preparing to be a military officer during a time of much fear and uncertainty. There were many events during my early years in the service that signaled the military was still adapting.
One change was our uniform.
When I first went on active duty in 2005, our daily uniform was our Air Force blues, what many call our office wear or suits. However, this was a time of increasing hostility and troop deployments. To help those of us serving stateside remember we were at war, the Air Force leadership changed our daily uniform to our Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), or fatigues. However, our BDUs were out of the past, in dark green, black, and brown camouflage, ready for jungle warfare, not the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq. True, military members were issued “deserts” prior to deployment, BDUs in light browns and tans, but they were made for the heat of the deserts, not the cold snowy winters of Afghanistan. This was addressed while I was still in the service, with new uniforms rolled out by each branch more appropriate to the conditions and terrain of the conflict zones.
Another adaptation needed was the type of training our nurses required to care for their patients at Bagram AB, Afghanistan. When people imagine military hospitals in conflict zones, many think of the TV show M*A*S*H, where American troops remained “in country” during their recovery. But that’s not the reality anymore. Due to the fantastic ability of the Air Force flight nurses, Critical Care Air Transport Teams, and air crew, U.S. service members are transported out of the conflict zone to established hospitals at Landsthul AB Germany, and eventually Walter Reed, within days, if not hours, of injury.
This meant our nurses were not caring for U.S. service members, but often were caring for local children who stepped on old land-mines. The main patients in a state-side military hospital are not children, thus to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, our Chief Nurse reached an agreement with the local children’s hospital for our nursing staff to train there. The other patients that filled the wards at Bagram AB are those you cannot train for. Many of the other patients were members of the Taliban who were injured and captured fighting the U.S. military. How do you prepare to take care of your enemy?
There were many other signs that reminded us we were in a military at war.
Our state-side hospital functioned with fewer staff as our colleagues deployed to Afghanistan, went to training to prepare for deployment, and went on temporary duty to Germany and D.C. in support of our medical mission to bring injured military members home. There were also the constant readiness drills to ensure our unit could deploy on a moment’s notice to anywhere in the world. Plus, the patients with traumatic brain injuries from IED blasts are hard to forget.
I left the Air Force in 2010 and I know much has changed in those nine years. The deployments are fewer and the “ops tempo” slower, but the Global War on Terror remains an active campaign. Some of my students are joining the military upon graduation and will wear the same campaign badge I did. We remain a nation at war, but with fewer and fewer bearing the costs, it seems our nation has forgotten.
Theresa Schroeder Hageman is a graduate of Pandora-Gilboa High School and a visiting assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. She is a military veteran who served with the U.S. Air Force from 2005–2010. She was a commissioned officer, stationed with the 60th Medical Group, Travis Air Force Base, California.