As the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, three members of the Princeton VFW reflected on the attacks and their experiences during the war in Afghanistan.
Jim Pagel joined the Army Reserves in 1981. A few years later he switched to the National Guard and was sent to Germany during the Bosnian War. He was later stationed in Bosnia in 2002. In 2005 he was stationed in Iraq for just over two years and in 2009 was sent to Afghanistan to the northeast mountains of Nuristan Province for a year.
Pagel was medically retired about five years later due to injuries he sustained in a pair of explosions, including three concussions, a moderate traumatic brain injury and a blown disc in his back, he said.
Michael “Taco” Swenson served in the Navy and the Army National Guard from the late 1980s to 2007.
Nick Reedy joined the Army National Guard in 2002 and has worked in Army intelligence since finishing his training. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and in 2007, then he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 for about a year. He has deployed to several locations in the Middle East since then and is currently a member of the National Guard.
Where were you?
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans were shocked when two planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Nineteen men hijacked a total of four commercial airplanes and crashed two into the twin towers and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane ultimately crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It is commonly believed the plane missed its intended target — likely the White House or the U.S. Capitol — due to passengers fighting back against the hijackers. Almost total 3,000 people died in the attacks.
The morning of the attack Pagel was planning on meeting in Baldwin to discuss setting up a fire department, when he saw footage of the first plane crash.
“As I come out of the shower I see this on TV and I just get mesmerized, watching and watching and then I said ‘I got to go,’” Pagel said. “I get (to Baldwin) and they said we’re not going to hold the meeting, we’ll reschedule. So I went back home and just plopped in front of the TV.”
He spent the rest of the day watching the attacks unfold. Once military units started getting deployed, Pagel wondered when his unit would be called, saying he wanted to get deployed.
“It was heartbreaking and sickening but also making you so mad inside,” Pagel said.
Swenson was on active duty at Camp Ripley, preparing to respond to state workers who were planning a strike. He was in the chow hall when the planes hit and the camp was locked down.
When he saw the first plane hit, Swenson wondered how it could have happened, because it seemed like an accident at the time. Then the second plane hit and he knew that it was an act of terrorism.
Reedy heard about the first plane as he was leaving for high school and also thought it was an accident. Then when he got to his first period, his teacher turned on the TV to watch the news.
“We watched the second plane hit and at that point we knew that this wasn’t a normal accident — that something bad was happening,” Reedy said.
Reedy had been in the Pentagon just before the attack for a youth leadership conference. After learning about the planes hitting the Pentagon and crashing in Pennsylvania, he attempted to contact his friends he met during the leadership training in the Pentagon, but all communication was shut down.
Reedy had been considering enlisting, but after the attacks, he knew he wanted to join out of anger and a desire to serve, Reedy said.
“The second plane hitting the towers is etched in my brain, ... but even more than that were the people jumping out of the building to try and get away from the fire,” Reedy said.
The death of Osama bin Laden
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is credited with being the mastermind behind the attacks. Approximately a decade later, in May 2011, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs descended on bin Laden’s compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan, using stealth helicopters, and killed him.
Pagel was in Afghanistan when he learned that bin Laden was dead. He was transferred from his location in the mountains down to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. One day in the mess hall he noticed a few people in civilian clothes without the normal identification that most soldiers had. He also noticed they weren’t equipped with normal gear and later stopped showing up to breakfast after a strange-sounding helicopter left the night before, Pagel said.
Two mornings after he noticed their absence at breakfast a contractor working with Pagel got a phone call, then informed everyone that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
“He looks up at us and says, ‘They got bin Laden last night,’ and I looked right at him and I said, ‘Does that mean I get to go home?’” Pagel said.
Despite his jokes, Pagel knew the mission in Afghanistan didn’t end with bin Laden’s death.
“The main mission was to get bin Laden, but it was also to keep the Taliban and al-Qaida at bay so they couldn’t hit us back here,” Pagel said. “Now that we’ve pulled out, (...) it’s going to be just a matter of time. Something’s going to happen again.”
Reedy was in the southern part of Afghanistan in a small base. There he got a phone call informing him that bin Laden was dead. While he was happy to hear the news, Reedy knew that it didn’t mean his mission was over.
“It was his legacy that we were fighting at that point,” Reedy said. “So it wasn’t necessarily him anymore. It was his words, ideas, his ideology that had spread.”
Swenson had already left the military when he heard bin Laden was dead. He was working in federal law enforcement at the time, he said. He was happy to hear the news as well, but he knew there was still work to be done.
Over the last few months Americans have watched U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan as Taliban forces quickly overcame the Afghan government. The final withdrawal occurred primarily from a single airport in Kabul, until the last soldiers left at the end of August.
Watching the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan raised questions in Pagel’s mind about why it seemed like there was no plan. He asked why they only used the Kabul airport to evacuate, when there were large airports in other Afghan cities like Jalalabad and Bagram.
“Because now you allow the Taliban to concentrate on one place, instead of splitting their forces up,” Pagel said.
Reedy’s biggest problem with how the withdrawal happened, and he made a point to state it was his personal opinion only, was that leadership seemed willing to accept 10% of people who wanted to get out of the country getting left behind, he said apparently referencing comments made by President Joe Biden following the last soldiers leaving Kabul.
“To hear leadership all the way up at the highest level praise their actions by saying, ‘We got 90% of the people that were U.S. citizens, helped us or wanted to leave Afghanistan out before we left’ is a sad thing for me, because 10% is a lot,” Reedy said.
“It’s always been ‘no one’s left behind,’ we take everything with us,” Reedy said. “If someone’s down and can’t do it for themselves, we pick them up and we take them, and that’s always been our ethos. Because as a soldier that helps you in the end, (you) know that, hey, if something happens to me, there’s going to be somebody to come get me.”
Swenson argued that the U.S. should have either stayed longer or got out earlier. Pagel agreed, saying that it would take a generation of people growing up under the Afghan government to make that change stick.
Swenson pointed out that one of the challenges of fighting in Afghanistan was that the Taliban was in the fight for the long haul, but the United States could shift its policies with each new presidential administration.
“The problem with us: We go every four years, they’re in it for a 100-year war,” Swenson said.
Reedy also was suspicious of the timing. He noted the upcoming mid-term elections and the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which could be coincidence but he still found strange, he said.
“The big thing for me was that we were OK with 10% and I think that’s 100% unacceptable, because that’s not what we are,” Reedy said.
All three men also raised concerns about how the withdrawal could endanger the U.S.
Reedy said he thinks the U.S. would eventually see another terrorist attack at home, because it draws attention to the cause of the attacker. But the withdrawal may have hastened the next time that happens. He pointed to the equipment that was left behind, that the Taliban can sell for profit, and that nobody will be watching them so they can train and prepare in the open again.
Even the equipment that was damaged or left inoperable could be sold to other countries who may want to reverse engineer the technology, Pagel said.
“I’m not afraid that the Taliban are all of the sudden going to start learning how to fly Apaches, or even use UH-60 Blackhawks,” Reedy said. “My concern is that they’re going to sell that to another country and they’re going to take that money and they’re going to further their ideology.”
They also pointed out how dangerous it was to leave behind biometric equipment and data. American forces used equipment that would scan retinas, fingerprints and faces to check if someone was previously captured as a Taliban fighter, or to identify interpreters and other people who aided U.S. forces.
“Anybody that’s in that system is dead,” Swenson said.