The weight of 18 years: A combat veteran reflects

Connecting Vets
September 11, 2019 - 7:00 am
John Byrnes at Ground Zero

John Byrnes


By John Byrnes, Special to

I brimmed with pride earlier this year, as my goddaughter graduated high school, having recently turned 18. At the same time, I was troubled by what those 18 years mean for young Americans. 

My thoughts quickly turned to her first, infant summer 2001.

In 2000 I joined the National Guard, to help pay for school, and to re-establish the sense of service I had as an active Marine from ‘91 to ‘95.  A short year later, only moments after I sat down for a 9 a.m. class, the world would forever be changed.

It was primary election day in New York. The Manhattan streets were littered with “vote for me” signs. The sun was out. It was a warm late summer day under a remarkable blue sky. 

Suddenly, the lecture was drowned out by the scream of sirens as fire engines raced down Lexington Avenue. A young woman in the rear of the classroom looked up from her cell phone and softly said, “An airplane just hit the World Trade Center.” 

I raced to the National Guard Armory, two miles away from my classroom, towards Ground Zero. I was one of the first from my company to arrive, but a few soldiers were already standing guard, with bayonets affixed, ready for the unknown next. 

By 10 a.m. I was in uniform. 

Sent to get extra maps of the city from Barnes & Noble, I remember the fear, confusion, and awe on the faces I passed as I sprinted south from the armory, pushing against the crush of civilians hustling to be anywhere but there. 

As the sun faded my company moved out to help secure lower Manhattan. When possible, we took turns walking the last block down to Ground Zero to view the devastation. To this day, it remains the single most horrific sight I have ever seen. 

Almost every New Yorker lost friends, family, or acquaintances that day. My platoon leader lost his sister. I lost five of my friends; a couple of them I had known since grade school. 

For the next two weeks, we stood 12-hour-plus shifts each night, keeping the site secure. Meanwhile, my brother, a Verizon technician, worked 16-hour days to restore phone and cell service. 

His 3-month-old daughter—my goddaughter—waited for him at home.

She turned three in 2004 when I was in Iraq fighting the rising insurgency. I lost some of my own soldiers and good friends that year. 

On her seventh birthday I was in Afghanistan, training police and working to stabilize the region. Several more soldiers I worked with gave their lives on that deployment. 


John Byrnes deployed overseas,
John Byrnes

In 2018, I retired with 22 years of combined active and reserve service. As I hung up my uniform for good, the war, which began as a result of that fateful day 18 years earlier, raged on.

Just as my goddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday, this year the Afghanistan War also turns 18. 

So, as she was handed her high school diploma, it hit me: she was too young to know the weight of that day in 2001; but now she is old enough to enlist and fight in a war that started before her first birthday.

We are currently fighting America’s longest war. Why? When will it end? Is there a better way to make decisions about war and peace? 

John Byrnes' Goddaughter
John Byrnes

At Concerned Veterans for America Foundation part of our mission is to educate and empower Americans with information to help them better their lives. We are taking our foreign policy programming across the country to begin to answer these questions, and, hopefully, engage people to ask more. 

As we observe this somber day, I am concerned by the significance of 18 years and what it means for the generations that will follow me. As you remember and honor the lives lost on 9/11, I urge you to think of those who we have lost since…and those we may lose in the future. 

I urge you to consider just what 18 years and America’s foreign policy mean for you and those around you.



John Byrnes

John Byrnes is a combat veteran who began his military career with the United States Marines in 1991 as a Combat Engineer, rising to the rank of Corporal in his four-year enlistment. In 1992 and 1993 he was deployed to Somalia in support of Operation Restore Hope. He returned to the military in 2000, enlisting in the New York Army National Guard as an Infantryman one year before the September 11, 2001 attacks. John responded immediately to the attacks and spent several weeks at Ground Zero along with his unit. He was the Operations Sergeant for TF Kennedy in 2006 during a critical surge. John also deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. John recently retired from the Army National Guard.

As a civilian, John has served in multiple capacities. He has been an op-ed writer and worked for multiple veterans’ organizations, nonprofits and political campaigns.

He is currently the Foundation Director for Concerned Veterans for America Foundation

He resides in Wilmington, NC with his beautiful wife Carrie.