CHAMPLAIN VALLEY, NY (NCPR)—Saturday marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 killed almost 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The effects of those events rippled all the way to the North Country, transforming the region’s largest military base into one of the most active in the country.
In late 2001, Doug Schmidt was an artilleryman, assigned to the 10th Mountain Division.
On the morning of 9/11 he was not at the mountain infantry unit’s home base in Watertown. Instead, he was on temporary duty at a training center in Louisiana, preparing for a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo.
Schmidt spent the day like many Americans, glued to the news.
“Watching the whole thing unfold on our Chaplin’s little four-inch TV screen, you know one of those old radio, TV type things,” Schmidt recalled recently.
When he returned to Fort Drum, it was clear the world had changed. Transport planes lined the base airfield, waiting to take the 10th Mountain to war.
“I can still kind of remember the news coverage, the local news station driving by and showing video out in the airfield of those aircraft sitting there,” Schmidt said.
He recalled the tension and uncertainty of those early days following the deadly attack.
“Everywhere is kind of like, ‘When are we going? When are we going? These aircraft are here.’ And then eventually they did…one day those aircraft were gone.”
Their destination was Uzbekistan, and then eventually Afghanistan.
Schmidt was ultimately not on that deployment, although he would later be sent to Iraq for the invasion of that country in 2003. He subsequently left the Army and earned a degree in history, focusing on the history of his old unit.
He is now the historian for the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division and says troops from Fort Drum endured harsh conditions during those early months in Afghanistan.
“It was very, very Spartan conditions [living on] old abandoned Soviet bases. It was almost constant field conditions of dirty grungy, nothing really in the way of showers.”
According to Schmidt, it took six months before permanent logistical support arrived for the first U.S. troops into Afghanistan, and close to a year for what he described as the more creature comforts that would later become common on the sprawling U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just as Afghanistan was changed by the two-decade occupation, so too was Fort Drum. The Watertown base transformed from a peacetime installation of the 1990’s post-Cold War era, to a deployment hub on a war footing.
“Fort Drum started expanding, there were so many more soldiers,” Schmidt remembers, after returning to the North Country after leaving the Army.
“There were a couple of times where Fort Drum was pretty much a ghost town. Everybody was deployed, there was just nobody for a good 10 to 15 years. It was just that constant rotation of deploying and fighting over in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
This week, the final 10th Mountain troops in Afghanistan came home, almost 20 years after those first deployments.
Schmidt is now working with the American War Letters project to preserve correspondence like letters and emails that 10th Mountain soldiers sent home while overseas.
Andrew Carroll started the initiative in the ’90s and has been collecting messages from all the nation’s wars ever since.
“It’s not that the troops write about their own hardships so much, but they’ll talk about the buddy they lost and other sacrifices that go beyond the battlefield, of just not being there,” Carroll explains.
“When a child is born, or missing those first words, those first steps as a parent, and just the strain it puts on relationships. I think most every military family knows this, but I as a civilian, didn’t know any of this.”
The Public Disengages
Carroll has collected thousands of letters, emails, and even text messages from conflicts throughout the nation’s history.
He says one of the most powerful letters he’s found was written by 10th Mountain Sergeant Josh Harapko, just before he went into a major combat operation early in the Afghanistan War.
“Before operation Anaconda, Josh had written a letter to his mom in the event that he was killed and it was very much an ‘in-case I die’ letter,” Carroll said in an interview.
Harapko survived Afghanistan and returned to Fort Drum, but later died in a training incident when a helicopter crashed.
“So his mother ended up giving us that letter,” Carroll said. Even though it wasn’t about Afghanistan. It was still kind of his last words to his mom. But again, we know those letters are out there. And we want to dedicate an entire wing to the 10th Mountain Division.”
Eleven soldiers died in the 2003 helicopter crash at Fort Drum that killed Harapko. Another ten Fort Drum soldiers died in a different crash in Afghanistan in 2006.
Those deaths and more took their toll on Fort Drum, and on the nation.
However, after reading letters from World War Two, Vietnam, and the War on Terror, Carol says that kind of public concern for the military often fades quickly.
“Regardless of the war, after a couple of years, society tires of it,” Carroll said, noting that overseas troops during World War Two expressed dismay at public angst over rationing and goods shortages at home.
With the nation’s longest war officially closed, military leaders in the North Country are looking ahead after 20 years of near-constant focus on Afghanistan.
Major General Milford Beagle took charge of the 10th Mountain earlier this summer. He told the assembled troops that Fort Drum must be ready for anything.
“We will provide ready forces for whatever and whenever our nation asks,” the two-star general declared.
“We must always remember; our nation will never ask if we are ready. They will expect it. We will strive for relevance every single day.”
They will step into that future missing 328 members of the 10th Mountain who have been killed overseas since nine-eleven.
The Climb To Glory Campaign is collecting correspondence from members of the 10th Mountain Division who served anywhere overseas, including the recent evacuation of civilians from Kabul Airport.
Letters or photocopies, forwarded emails, and even screenshots of text messages can be submitted to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.