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When the towers fell, they were high school students, aimless twentysomethings, engineers and budding psychologists.

Like the rest of the country, they watched the news, stunned. When the U.S. launched into wars that spanned the next 20 years, they went to Afghanistan and Iraq and fought those battles.

They came home proud or broken, or both.

Ramifications of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are still felt two decades after 19 al-Qaida terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died that day.

One week later, Congress gave President George W. Bush approval to strike back — a resolution that led to nearly 20 years of warfare in Afghanistan, spanning four presidencies and the birth of an entire generation. In 2003, Congress authorized an invasion of Iraq after Bush and top military officials alleged the country had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.

Over the 20 years that followed 9/11, more than 2 million Americans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 7,073 of those soldiers died fighting the wars. Another 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans are estimated to have died by suicide while serving or after returning home, according to a new Brown University study.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

A soldier stops a Shi’a woman on a bridge over the Tigris River on the outskirts of Baghdad.

The death tolls in the countries invaded by the U.S. are much higher: at least 113,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians and at least 184,000 Iraqi civilians died as a direct cause of the wars.

In Colorado, home to the Air Force Academy and four major military bases, thousands of people deployed overseas to fight the post-9/11 wars. At least 46 Coloradans — ages 20 to 44 — were killed or died during operations in that time. Other soldiers, sailors and Marines made their homes here after leaving the military.

The Denver Post sought out people with Colorado connections who fought the wars precipitated by 9/11 to find out how their service has affected their lives. Together these five Coloradans’ service spanned nearly the entirety of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their stories offer snapshots of how the post-9/11 wars shaped the lives of millions of U.S. service members who deployed and came home.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Approximately 70 Soldiers of Detachment 1, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora prepare to deploy on Saturday, May 21, 2011. The company was slated to join up with A Company from its sister unit from Nebraska, and train at Fort Hood, Texas, later that month before embarking on a 12-month Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Kendall Pickering, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, 1990-2013

Kendall Pickering returned from war with a brain injury, a phobia of open water and a fear that the war he had just fought in would never end.

Pickering was already in the U.S. Navy on Sept. 11, but the terrorist attacks meant almost immediate deployment to the Persian Gulf on the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay.

On his second deployment to the Gulf after 9/11, he fell off of his ship during combat, was pulled underwater by the ship’s propellers and run over, which crushed his spine and left him with a traumatic brain injury.

The Sept. 11 attacks took on a new meaning for him as he lay in a hospital bed in 2004 and recovered from his injuries, he said. He thought the U.S. response to the terror attacks could be the beginning of a never-ending war.

20th anniversary of 9/11

Doug Kanter/AFP via Getty Images

“It wasn’t a fear of being hurt and dying, but more of a fear of how long this could draw out,” he said. “When will we say enough is enough?”

It felt like he and his peers were risking their lives for goals that were difficult to articulate. Soldiers would push back or scatter a group of enemies but it was unclear whether that accomplished anything, he said.

“In my mind, the war’s been going on not for 20 years, but for 30 years,” he said. “It started in 1991 with the first Gulf War and it’s just kinda crept.”

He stayed in the military after the injury but transferred to the Army because his trauma left him with a phobia of open water. He retired as a chief warrant officer in 2013 after 23 years in the military and stayed in Colorado Springs, where he had built his life while stationed at Peterson Air Force Base.

He still manages the mental and physical trauma from his injury. He still has migraines and nightmares of drowning.

“I can now go into lakes, I can now go around many types of water,” he said. “I just can’t be around saltwater. Saltwater triggers it for some reason.”

Courtesy of Kendall Pickering

Kendall Pickering, left, and his wife Andrea are pictured at Kendall’s retirement from the Army.

Despite the short-term memory loss caused by his brain injury, Pickering earned a master of business administration degree and a doctorate in computer science. He said he’s never really thought about what his life might have been like had he not joined the military.

“I’m also fearful to think of that — I don’t want to have that regret of thinking what could’ve been,” he said.

The questions of whether the sacrifices he and his friends made have been worth it resurfaced in the last month as the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. There’s an anger and frustration born of embarrassment, he said.

“Despite all we did and everyone we lost, all that feels to be worthless,” he said. “It has no true meaning behind it because there is no resolution to it.

“It’s like we were never there.”

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Kyle Rivers was 25 when he was photographed on Sept. 26, 2001, after enlisted in the Army as a direct response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.

Kyle Rivers, U.S. Army 2001-2005

Kyle Rivers sat on the couch on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the towers fall.

The 25-year-old was working in Frisco after growing up in the Denver area, but felt called to act in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

“I thought, ‘I’m not really doing anything,’ so this is what I was going to do,’” he said.

The next day, he and his roommate visited a recruiter. Three days later, Rivers enlisted in the U.S. Army and eventually deployed to Iraq as a mortar gunner. For 16 months, he went on patrols, trained the Iraqi police and military, and met with local leaders.

“Half the time you don’t know what you’re fighting for over there, you just do what you’re told,” he said. “You’re fighting for the guy to your left and your right.”

Rebecca Droke, Special to The Denver Post

Kyle Rivers is pictured outside his home in Butler, Pa., on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

Rivers doubted his choice to join for a few moments in basic training. But 20 years later, he said his time in the Army gave him discipline and focus.

“It was my ‘aha’ moment, for good or bad,” he said. “It changed my life for the better.”

He met his wife in Hawaii, where he was stationed after he returned from deployment in 2005. He used his veteran benefits to enroll in flight school and now works as a private pilot in Pennsylvania.

Watching the U.S. military withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of war has been frustrating, he said. A coordinated withdrawal was needed, he said, but the all-at-once pullout created a vacuum.

Beyond the withdrawal, Rivers grieves what he sees as a change of tone in this country.

“The towers were attacked and you have people in the streets saying ‘never forget’ and a sense of patriotism,” Rivers said. “There’s no semblance of that anymore and it’s sad and pathetic.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Todd Kramer poses for a portrait in front of Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Kramer now coordinates the veteran court mentor program in the 18th Judicial District.

Todd Kramer, U.S. Army National Guard 2001-2006

In the days immediately after Sept. 11, President George W. Bush asked any American with prior military service to re-join. Todd Kramer answered the call.

At age 39, Kramer walked into an Arizona Army National Guard recruiting office. They didn’t blink when they learned about his other-than-honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1986 for a drinking incident. That afternoon, the recruiters swore him in at his workplace, where he designed airbags for BMW.

A few months later, he was deployed for 18 months to Baghdad, where he worked as a non-commissioned officer in an experimental combat military police unit. His team forced cars off the road to interrogate people, they broke down doors.

“We never collected any intel,” he said. “It was just very violent and I’m convinced we just pissed off a lot of Iraqis.”

One day he was manning the gun on a Humvee and fired at a vehicle that was approaching, despite warnings to stay at least 100 yards away. One of the rounds ricocheted off the vehicle and grazed a berm as it hurtled toward a nearby soccer field.

Kramer couldn’t see what happened but heard bloodcurdling screams.

“It haunts me to this day,” he said.

When he returned to the U.S., he could not integrate back into his previous life. Before he’d deployed, he’d been sober for 11 years after years of treating his alcoholism. He returned from war and unraveled.

“I hid for two years and went through $100,000 of cocaine and Crown whiskey,” he said.

After a suicide attempt, a nurse connected him to some men who were veterans of the Vietnam War. For an entire Texas summer, they fished day after day. One of the men talked to him about moral injury — psychological damage to one’s conscience after perpetrating, witnessing or failing to stop acts that contradict that person’s moral code.

“That man has no idea, but he changed my life,” Kramer said. “Nobody was talking about that, nobody was talking about moral injury. I just could breathe, I could take a breath of air.”

Things started getting better as Kramer continued treatment. He reconnected with his sixth-grade sweetheart, married her and moved to Denver to fulfill her lifelong dream of living near the mountains.

A volunteer post as a mentor for the veterans’ court in the 18th Judicial District in 2015 became a full-time job. As mentor and resource coordinator, Kramer connects veterans in the court program with volunteer mentors and helps them meet other needs like housing, food and employment.

His heart has ached as he’s watched the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. War is never the solution, he said, but It’s hard to not think those who died in the war died in vain.

He doesn’t regret his decision to re-enlist, though. After lots of therapy, he said he’s been able to look at his deployment in a healthier way.

“I think I was sent over there to come back and help with the aftermath,” he said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Lauren Cole poses for a portrait at her home in Wheat Ridge on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

Lauren Cole, U.S. Navy 2007-2019

Lauren Cole remembers her high school teachers wheeling televisions into the library on Sept. 11, 2001, so she and her classmates could watch the news.

A junior at the time, Cole already planned to join the military so she could become a pilot and afford a college education. The fact that she’d be joining at a time of war, instead of the relative peacetime she expected, didn’t deter her.

“It made me focus even more and made me dedicated because it gave more purpose and more reason to why you serve,” she said.

After participating in Boston University’s ROTC program, in 2007 she joined the Navy and became an officer and a helicopter pilot. In 2010, she deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf as part of operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom. It was her job to protect the ship from the air and to conduct search and rescue missions should a plane go down over the water.

Six years into her career, she decided to swap piloting for public affairs work. The job took her around the world and enmeshed her in high-profile events, including the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting. While based in New York, she met her husband, who had just finished a five-year contract with the U.S. Marines.

In August 2019, she went to reserve duty and the couple moved to the Denver area, where Cole was born.

Their veterans’ benefits allowed them both to pursue MBAs and buy a home. Cole used her military experience to get a job in communications at Lockheed Martin.

The fallout from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — ending the Middle East conflict that spanned her entire adult life — has frustrated Cole. The speed at which the Taliban retook control surprised her. The sluggish American effort to evacuate the Afghans who helped the U.S. is heartbreaking, she said.

“At this point, I don’t think the focus is about maintaining any of the accomplishments from the last 20 years, I think it’s about trying to ensure safety for the people who stood side by side with us,” she said. “That is my biggest frustration right now. We asked our Afghan allies to fight with us, and now it’s our turn to fight for them.”

But for her personally, the military afforded her a high level of education and financial stability that likely wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. She treasured the opportunity to mentor other women in the military.

“At the end of the day, I’m thankful,” she said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Donald Maloy poses for a portrait at his house in Thornton, Colorado on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

Donald Maloy, U.S. Army 2007-2016

Donald Maloy was in the middle of earning his master’s degree in forensic psychology at the University of Denver when the jetliners flew into the Twin Towers.

“I remember thinking then, ‘Wow, I should do something,’” he said. “But I didn’t know what to do, and I wasn’t ready to enlist.”

He’d always known he would join the military, like his father and many other members of his family, but he had other goals as well. After 9/11, Maloy finished his master’s degree and worked in counseling. Five years after the terror attacks, he walked into the Army recruiting office at Metropolitan State University of Denver that he passed every day while working as a baseball coach for the school.

“I knew I had to do it,” he said. “If I don’t, then I’m waiting for everyone else to do it.”

Over the next 10 years, Maloy spent a total of 42 months deployed as a special forces officer, the majority of that time in Iraq and Afghanistan. He used his background in psychology and counseling to help the men he led process the trauma of war.

A specific memory sticks with him. During a deployment to Afghanistan, he could tell that one of the men he supervised was not doing well. Maloy ordered him to go check with the Army’s mental health professionals. When the man refused, Maloy grabbed the man’s hand, forcibly walked him to the facility and sat him down in a treatment room.

“Then he started crying, and he started crying with deep, deep sobs,” Maloy said.

After that moment, the entire team was closer, Maloy said. He implemented regular emotional debriefings with the men he led so they could talk about their reactions to their experiences.

“Talking about emotion helped us organize our thoughts then and not after deployment when we came home and had access to women, booze, the internet or whatever maladaptive coping mechanism,” he said.

Maloy immediately transitioned back into work as a professional counselor after leaving the Army in 2016. But even with his psychology training, he struggled to adapt back to civilian life. He was used to making friends through his military assignments and became lonely. And though he was a husband and a father, it was difficult to transition from the intensity of his final Army role leading all operations in southern Afghanistan.

“We’re used to being around a boatload of guys in uniform who want to fight and die for us,” he said. “There’s not really a correlation to that in the civilian world.”

He soon found himself specializing in counseling veterans, working for the Department of Veterans Affairs and WarriorNow, an Aurora-based nonprofit that helps veterans dealing with mental health needs like addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You have to be able to trust someone and who can listen so don’t lose your mind by being in your own head,” he said.

This content was originally published here.