Jeremiah Berger was a 22-year-old working in the receiving department at The Home Depot in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and doing his daily tasks when he heard the news.
“I was listening to Howard Stern on the radio, and he was describing the horror of the World Trade Center attacks,” said Staff Sgt. Berger, a recruiter for the U.S. Army in Decatur. “When I got home and saw those jets, it made me sick. With my competitiveness and being an American, it made me angry.”
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when four commercial jetliners were hijacked by 19 al-Qaida members. Two of the jets crashed into the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. One jet struck thePentagon in Washington and the fourth plane went down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In total, 2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured.
Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Schuh and Air Force Tech Sgt. Joshua Riffe, also Decatur-based military recruiters, and Berger said it was their patriotism and anger from the 9/11 attacks that motivated them .
Berger said the day after the attacks he thought of joining the military. “It was a sense of ownership for my generation,” he said. “I was going nowhere at my job, and I was angry at what had happened. The whole nation was angry. I saw it as my duty to serve in the military.”
Berger didn’t immediately run down to the local military recruiting office to enlist. His girlfriend had a firm hold on his heartstrings, he said. “Several of my friends from high school enlisted right away,” he said. “But my girlfriend voiced her opinion against it.”
A few months later, Berger said, he broke off his relationship. He said a delivery driver at his job told him his son had joined the Army to fight the terrorists. “The next day I went to the recruiting office,” Berger said.
He said he couldn’t wait to get out of basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and get to the war zone.
“Every soldier wanted to get there and help out,” said Berger, 37. “I didn’t want to go over there and kill people just because they looked like the people who did this to us. But I wanted to deploy and do my part.”
He said he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as a parachute rigger when he received orders to leave for Iraq in 2003. “We were there to carry out a mission,” he said. “We were not there fighting as individuals trying to get revenge.”
During Berger’s seven-month stint in Iraq, Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein was captured Dec. 13, 2003. “It was an exciting time to be over there, but also confusing,” Berger said. “The locals were celebrating by shooting machine guns in the air. At first, we didn’t know if they were shooting at us or celebrating. Yes, it was a sense of victory, but we knew there was a war still going on.”
He was in Afghanistan when Navy Seals shot and killed Taliban leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. “It finally happened,” Berger recalled upon hearing the news of bin Laden’s death. “It’s over. His death culminated the reason why I joined the Army.”
As a recruiter, he visits high schools. “High school freshmen now weren’t even born when 9/11 happened,” Berger said. “Sometimes they ask about 9/11. I guess it is like me asking my grandfather about Pearl Harbor.”
Schuh said he was on his way to history class at his high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he heard the news of the terrorist attacks. He said he was a 16-year-old junior in JROTC at the time and ready to go to war.
“I remember that day and seeing all the flags on buildings, cars,” he said. “I vividly remember the ash covering the people in New York City. For me, that was a unifying moment. This was my Pearl Harbor.”
He said he had to wait a year before he could sign up for the delayed enlistment program.
The following summer, he was a Marine.
Schuh, 31, served in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2008. While in southern Afghanistan, he earned a Purple Heart after suffering a bullet wound to the left side of his torso during a firefight in a field in Garmsir on May 15, 2008.
“If it wasn’t for 9/11 and my desire to be a Marine, I probably would have been a high school teacher or police officer or firefighter,” said Schuh, who lives in Madison with his wife Amanda.
“It was police and firefighters on 9/11 who are the true heroes for what they did trying to rescue people.”
Twenty-three police officers and 343 firefighters and paramedics died at the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
Next door to Berger’s Army office is Air Force recruiter Riffe. He didn’t join the Air Force until 2005, but he said it was 9/11 that spurred him.
He was a college freshman studying criminal justice in Missouri when the World Trade Center towers came down.
Four years later, “9/11 was still hot in my mind,” he said. “I came home from school one day and saw on the news a helicopter had been shot down by the Taliban. That’s what finally got me to join. I wanted to be part of something positive for this country. I wanted to serve my nation. It is a decision I have never regretted.”
While based in the U.S., Riffe said, he felt his efforts contributed to the fight against terrorists. “We fought our mission here. We all have a job to do protecting this great nation,” he said. “If the Air Force told me to go to the Middle East, I was ready.”
Riffe, 34, has been in Decatur for three months. His wife and two children live in Priceville.
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