Nicholas Perez recently found himself curious what music was topping the charts in September 2001. There was nothing particularly unexpected in the results of his search, but he said scrolling through the list of songs was strange.

"It was just weird -- there's a lot of upbeat songs," he said. "I feel like everything changed, like culturally. Music changed. Video games changed. Movies changed."

Perez, now a technical sergeant stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, was a senior in high school in Texas on Sept. 11, 2001. He remembers sitting in drama class, waiting for his teacher to arrive. When she finally came in the room, she was in tears.

A television was wheeled into the classroom, and the class watched as a plane hit the second tower.

At that point, Perez remembered his friend turning to him.

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"Dude, we should totally join the Air Force, bro," Perez recalled his friend saying to him.

In February 2003, Perez enlisted.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Two decades later, many veterans and current servicemen and servicewomen share a common sentiment: There was the world before 9/11, and there was the world after.

Perez didn't hesitate to call 9/11 a formative event, not only for him, but for most Americans his age.

"I think maybe with my generation, I think there was a lot of naivety," Perez said. "Just kind of a general sense that everything was peaceful, and there was nothing bad out there. And then when 9/11 happened, it was like, 'Oh wow, there are some people out there that really don't like us.'"

Master Sgt. Terry Snider remembers the shift distinctly. Snider, now also stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, had joined the Air Force the year before, in 2000. On Sept. 11, he was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumpter, S.C., working as an aircraft maintainer. That morning, he had been flying regular missions right up until the moment the plane hit the second tower.


"We had never been attacked like that on our soil by an enemy, and then here we are. Innocent lives were lost."

- Master Sgt. Terry Snider


Snider came from a military family, and said he enlisted out of a sense of duty to his country. He never expected such a major call to action to occur so early in his career, however.

Airmen at his base leapt into action without thought. He spent the morning flying missions surveilling the Eastern seaboard, ensuring no other planes crashed anywhere else. Then came the order to ground all aircraft.

"We probably sent up half the fleet before they told us to stop," he recalled.

It wasn't until later that he was able to decompress, and realize the magnitude of what had just happened. He recalled that nobody wanted to go home.

"It had a big impact the day of, and it's resonated throughout the years," he said. "We had never been attacked like that on our soil by an enemy, and then here we are. Innocent lives were lost. It wasn't military targets they were after, it was civilian targets. So it's a big part of my life for the last 20 years."

Watching American forces withdraw from Afghanistan on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 has dredged up plenty of mixed emotions, Snider said.

"It's emotional," he said. "You look back on 20 years of your life, and that's 20 years of your life done. And the same people that we were fighting not to take over the country when we first started this are the same people who now have control of the country, and it hurts. You thought that we would have made a difference, and that we would have changed things for the better, but it almost seems like we didn't do anything. Almost like it was a waste, at a point."

In this Grand Forks Herald file photo from Sept. 11, 2001, Staff Sgt. Michael Holman checks identification at the main gate of Grand Forks Air Force Base. All U.S. bases were on high alert after the 9/11 attacks that day. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)
In this Grand Forks Herald file photo from Sept. 11, 2001, Staff Sgt. Michael Holman checks identification at the main gate of Grand Forks Air Force Base. All U.S. bases were on high alert after the 9/11 attacks that day. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

"But I know that we made some type of change there," he continued. "I know that there are people that I met over there that we changed."

Andrew Armacost, president of UND and a U.S. Air Force veteran, shares those complicated feelings.

"You just reflect upon the sacrifice of so many people, both American and Afghan, and you know that the plight of those who are supporting the U.S., and you think about them and their families," he said. "We, those who serve, often have connections to Afghan interpreters and people who served at the embassy, and in the mixed emotions, you just hope they're OK, and you hope for their safety."

"It's hard to put into words," he continued. "There's just so much uncertainty about the future. Will any of the ideals take root? The things that we've learned over the last 20 years?"

Armacost was a member of the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy in September 2001. He was at home getting ready for the day when his wife directed his attention to the TV.

In the confusing first minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, many Americans still believed a terrible accident had occurred. But Armacost recalls immediately sensing that it was an attack.

The days and weeks afterward were surreal, he said, and everyone seemed to share the same pervasive sense of uncertainty. No one seemed to know what would come next, he recalled.

"We just knew that this was going to be a different phase of life," he said. "The world would never be the same again."