1. News
  2. /
  3. Military

Do you remember 9/11? New military recruits don’t

Many of America’s future soldiers are too young to have a personal connection to the terror attacks or the war in Afghanistan that followed.
(left to right) Trevor Yarborough, 17, Kadie Weston, 17, and Connor Gadson-Yarbrough, 18, supervise their NJROTC classmates while preparing for the Iron Bear Challenge at Robinson High School in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Oct. 3
Updated Oct. 3

TAMPA — Many were infants on Oct. 7, 2001, the day the United States unleashed Operation Enduring Freedom and began the Afghanistan War. Some had yet to be born.

So as the 18th anniversary of America’s longest war approaches, it’s not surprising that the newest military recruits have no emotional connection to the events of September 11.

“It doesn’t feel as serious as it must have been to the older generations,” says Isabelle Acevedo, an 18-year-old Air Force ROTC cadet at the University of South Florida. Acevedo is one of a number of local teens who told the Tampa Bay Times they intend to join the military, but aren’t sure why U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan or what prompted the war that has lasted their entire lifetime.

Experts say September 11 means different things to the two generations that came of age in its shadow.

Millennials, born before 1996, have personal memories of the attacks and their immediate aftermath, said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Tex. He said it later prompted many to enlist.

Members of Gen Z, born after 1996, rely on an interpretation of the attacks and their meaning. They’ve grown up desensitized to global terrorism. Their lives were much more affected by mass shootings across the country, especially in schools.

This generational divide has forced recruiters and ROTC leaders to change approaches when discussing deployments and modern-day military service.

Recruitment has always been hard, with each generation providing unique challenges, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the California-based Rand Corporation. During the Cold War, few felt the need to enlist during what was generally a time of peace. Public support for the military faltered in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

After 9/11, interest in military service spiked, driven by a sense of patriotism.

That interest has slowed over the last few years, said Capt. Nicholas Pine of the U.S. Army Tampa Recruiting Battalion.

Recruits today ask more about educational benefits and job opportunities than older millennials. They want to know more about daily military life and turn to social media for answers.

Trevor Yarborough, 17, a senior in the Navy Junior ROTC program at Robinson High School, said he regularly sees ads showing military drills on YouTube and follows recruiters on Instagram.

“I see all the time the stuff they do,” he said.

Yet with almost infinite access to information online, recruits who grew up in a digital world can still struggle to discern fact from fiction.

Dispelling online rumors is one of the biggest new challenges recruiters face, Pine said. For instance, there’s a misconception that all those who enlist will only go to war and not work engineering jobs or other non-combat tasks.

Recruiting strategies aren’t all that’s changed.

New technologies such as drones are reducing manpower needs while cyber attacks have redefined warfare. The various branches are working more closely together. Multiple combat tours are the new normal.

“It’s a different war now,” said Elliott Berman, a Navy veteran and commander of Robinson High School’s ROTC program

Increasingly, it’s being fought by a different soldier. The removal of barriers for women is a significant factor in their representing 18 percent of enlistments in the Army this year, according to local recruiters.

The changes inspire 17-year-old Kadie Weston, also in Robinson High School’s ROTC program.

“Women want to serve as much as men,” she said. “I know the saying that it’s a man’s world but I feel that soon it’s going to be a woman’s world.”

These new recruits will likely face new challenges once they become veterans.

People who served after the September 11 attacks were twice as likely to face combat compared to previous veterans so they are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than earlier generations, a new Pew Research Center study found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to improve medical services for the growing number of female veterans who will require specialized treatments as they age.

But for everything that’s changed in the world since 2001, the core reasons driving people toward military service remain the same.

Dalton Hongell, 18, is a member of USF’s Air Force ROTC program. He was an infant lying on his mother’s bed on a military base when the first plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. His aunt had to take care of him after his mother deployed.

Though the attacks directly affected his early upbringing, what drives him is a commitment to his mother’s legacy and a sense of pride. Hongell plans to join the Air Force.

“It’s a duty that needs to be done,” he said.

Today, roughly half of enlistments are continuing a family legacy, Army recruiters say.

The Tampa Bay area, home to MacDill Air Force Base and the largest retired veteran population in Florida, has supplied new recruits across multiple wars.

The youngest ones may not fully grasp how the September 11 attacks changed the world, but they still respect it as a key moment in history, said Maggie Liott, 18, an Air Force ROTC cadet.

They say they wish there was greater public discussion about the Afghanistan War and what military service means in 2019.

Connor Gadson-Yarbrough, 18, who plans to join the Navy, said that for some, what matters is the chance to serve their country.

“Somebody has to do it,” Gadson-Yarbrough said.


  1. Maintainers prepare KC-135s refueling planes to be evacuated from MacDill Air Force Base in August. A new study predicts MacDill and other Florida bases will experience a sharp rise in the number of days when the heat index tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making it unsafe to be outside for extended periods. MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times
    MacDill Air Force Base is predicted to see big increases in days the heat index tops 100 degrees.
  2. Andrew Morrow, 67, an Army veteran, has a place to live through Operation Reveille and the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Coalition. Some days, Morrow said, he would wake up crying after a night on the streets. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Through Operation Reveille, advocates spend the year finding housing for Hillsborough’s homeless veterans. Their numbers have fallen since it launched in 2014.
  3. Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Israel killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza early Tuesday in a resumption of pinpointed targeting that threatens a fierce round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) HATEM MOUSSA  |  AP
    The Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, setting off a furious barrage of Gaza-fired rockets that reached as far as the Tel Aviv
  4. U.S. Army veteran Don Adams, 65, (right) holds his Veterans Treatment Court Certificate of Completion as he hugs Hillsborough Judge Michael Scionti last week. The special court graduated its 700th veteran during a presentation  in honor of the Veteran's Day weekend. "This court saved my life," said Adams, who did not want to participate in the program at first. "This court saved me from me." Pictured left is James. A Jeffries, Chaplain for Hillsborough County veterans. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    The specialized version of drug court puts veterans’ rehabilitation at the forefront. It is becoming a national model.
  5. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. JAMAL THALJI  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Provincial governor Gholamreza Shariati told IRNA that the drone belonged to a “foreign” country and that parts of it had been recovered in a nearby lagoon.
  6. Pasco County community news TMCCARTY80  |  Tara McCarty
    Members of the West Pasco Dental Association are providing the service.
  7. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is displayed on a monitor as U.S. Central Command Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie at a joint press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Al-Baghdadi was identified by comparing his DNA to a sample collected in 2004 by U.S. forces in Iraq, where he had been detained.
  8. Medal of Honor recipient and retired Navy Seal Lt. Thomas Norris shakes hands with Angelina Anderson, 11, during a visit to Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday. Michele Miller
    The visits were a collaboration with the Medal of Honor Character Foundation.
  9. The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. The X-37B OTV is an an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. It broke a record after staying 780 consecutive days in orbit.

 Air Force
    The Air Force will let you see photos of the reusable, unmanned X-37B. But its classified missions remain a mystery.
  10. Melvin Morris is seen in this undated photo by Nick Del Calzo. NICK DEL CALZO  |  Photo by
    Some were born in Florida. Others joined up here. All received the nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.