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10 years after 9-11, young military recruits still cite attacks as a reason to join

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SUMMERVILLE, S.C. - Casey Owens remembers this about Sept. 11, 2001: he was home from school sick, lying in his mom's bed and watching cartoons on TV. He was 7 years old.

The phone rang, and Owens' mom changed the channel to a news station. The twin towers were burning in New York, some 750 miles from the family's South Carolina home. Owens' mom started crying.

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"I was worried because my mom was worried," he said. "I was scared. She said there might be a war coming to the U.S. I just wanted to watch cartoons again."

A decade later, Owens sits in an Army recruiting office in an eastern South Carolina strip mall with his mother. When he graduates from high school, the 17-year-old will go to boot camp next June. Sept. 11 attacks, he said, was his inspiration.

"That's one of the main reasons I want to go into the military," he said. "To help fight for freedom and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The tens of thousands of young men and women like Owens who have enlisted in the military this year grew up in the shadow of 9-11, often too young to remember the world well before it. Some say they want to serve a country that's been a war against terrorism since early childhood; others say they want to find control in a world that's seemingly spun out of control.

"I believe that terrorists will have plans in the future," said Tim Freeman, 20, a Marine recruit from Beaufort, S.C. "But our military's going to be waiting for it."

Ten years ago, Freeman was in fifth grade. His dad pulled him out of school after the first plane hit and Freeman remembers being confused because all the grown-ups were crying and stone-faced.

"It didn't really click in my head that it was a catastrophe," he said. A few days later, after his parents and teachers explained what had happened, Freeman made a promise to himself to join the military. As he grew older, he learned more about al-Qaida and terrorism, and his resolve to enlist grew stronger.

"9-11 brought me closer to my country," said Freeman. "It showed me the door to the Marine Corps."

Freeman, who splits his time between working at a local Lowe's home improvement store and working out at the gym, has already buzzed his hair short and grins when asked if he's excited about going to basic training in February. He knows that by this time next year, he could be facing combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"Whatever happens, happens," said Freeman. "I'm not going to be afraid of it."

George Walker, an 18-year-old from Savannah, Ga., has thought about Sept. 11 a lot over the years. His uncle was killed that day while working in the World Trade Center and he remembers the long, sad drive to New York to attend his uncle's funeral.

"9-11 was pretty much everywhere when I was growing up," said Walker.

When he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a Marine.

Military recruitment did not surge in the years after Sept. 11; the Army met its recruitment goals in 2001 and 2002, but by 2005, had fallen short of its 80,000-person goal.

Yet there were people who enlisted because they were angry at the terrorists.

And the weak economy played a role. Branches of the military report that they are meeting — or even exceeding — their recruitment goals and are attracting better qualified recruits, largely because of the lack of jobs for young people. Military service ensures a paycheque and benefits.

Another perk: the post-9-11 GI Bill, which pays for full tuition and fees for all public universities and colleges and a monthly housing allowance for those who have at least 90 days of service since Sept. 11, 2001.

Angelo Haygood, the deputy chief of recruiting operations for the Air Force, said that all recruits are asked their top three reasons for joining the service.

In seven out of the past 10 years, recruits have cited "patriotism" as a reason for joining, Haygood said. But he's reluctant to say that Sept. 11 was the sole motivator for people to enlist in the Air Force.

"For those who were interested in joining, Sept. 11 gave them a confirmation that their decision was the right one," he said.

Matthew Locklair, a 22-year-old Army officer candidate recruit from South Carolina, said it took years to process the effect that 9-11 had on his country, years before he thought about enlisting.

When his seventh-grade science teacher announced to the class that "there's been an attack on America," Locklair remembered, "I thought she meant there was an attack on Summerville's town hall. I couldn't really comprehend the loss until years later."

Locklair never thought about joining the military until he went to school in Egypt, at The American University in Cairo. There, he learned about defence policy and Sept. 11, and was interested enough to enlist.

The attack that happened on U.S. soil 10 years ago, he said, is even harder to stomach now that he's an adult.

"Now I see the footage of the towers crumbling and I can't even stand to watch it," he said. "It's just a sombre thing in the consciousness of my mind."

Stuart Gaskins, who has been a Marine for a year and is stationed at Parris Island, S.C., was eager to celebrate his 15th birthday on Sept. 11, 2001.

Instead, he watched the attacks on TV in his second period world history class in Bowie, Md., and went home soon after. Gaskins' father worked at the Pentagon and it was hours before Gaskins learned that his father was alive.

As a young teen, Gaskins said he was "kind of a pacifist." His father, who had served in the military, often travelled around the world for conflicts.

"9-11 changed my mindset," Gaskins said. "It changed something inside of me. It made me want to fight for my country. We all became vulnerable. It became real."

___

EDITOR'S NOTE — Tamara Lush is travelling the country writing about the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.

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