The Sept. 11 attacks transformed not only Weathers’ life but set the stage for two long and costly wars that reordered the way the American military fights.
Weathers, a graduate of Cass High School, was two-thirds through boot camp when hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and, after being overtaken by passengers on Flight 93, a field in Shanksville, Pa., instead of the intended target believed to be in Washington, D.C.
“We got up that morning, nobody said a thing. We marched out to the range, thinking a normal day, ya know,” Weathers said. “Before I went it was like life was normal, there were no threats or anything. I didn’t go in thinking, ‘I’m going to go fight.’ I actually went in thinking I was going to get to go see the world, go to different liberty ports. So I was thinking I was going to have a lot of fun.
“That morning we marched out to the thunderdome, you get your morning briefing on what’s going on at the range that day. And the first thing the instructor said was, just out of the blue, ... ‘Well, men, we’re not going to tell you what has happened today. We know that some of you are from the area of concern.’
“We went back to the barracks thinking, ‘What in the world has happened? Have we been invaded?’ The wildest things go through your mind. ... Our senior drill instructor asked for a show of hands of who was from the New York City area or who had family and friends in the area. The guys who raised their hands, they pulled them aside, took them outside. I guess they let them try to call home at that point but all the phone lines were shut down pretty much. Then they told us about the attack, about what happened. They didn’t show us any footage. We listened to the radio … I remember George Bush had a broadcast that night on the radio that we listened to as a platoon.”
The problem was not peace on 9/11. At the time, the military was focused almost entirely on external threats. Air defenses kept watch for planes and missiles that might strike from afar; there was little attention to the possibility that terrorists might hijack domestic airliners and use them as missiles.
Terrorism was not a new challenge in 2001, but the scale of the 9/11 attacks prompted a shift in the U.S. mindset from defense to offense.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7 in an unconventional military campaign that was coordinated with the CIA. That heralded one of the most profound effects of 9/11: a shift in the military’s emphasis from fighting conventional army-on-army battles to executing more secretive, intelligence-driven hunts for shadowy terrorists.
In March 2003, Weathers was among the first wave of Marines to enter Iraq, spending three weeks in Mosul securing the airport there. He returned for his second tour in summer 2004, this time to Haditha, as part of the humanitarian effort.
“Basically our mission was to, it was near the Syrian border, they were having terrorists, foreign fighters coming in from Syria using this one main road that went through the area. It was like one road in this whole hundreds of miles to use, and they were using it to come down from Syria into Iraq and down into Fallujah,” Weathers said. “So they wanted us to shut off the road, patrol the road, and also to do, like, humanitarian-type assistance with the local villages.”
For the majority of Weathers’ four months in Haditha, the area was quiet. In early August, he was sent to Camp Fallujah on a special detail.
“Our whole mission was to patrol these canals, these waterways outside of the city, deter them from planting IEDs, find out where rocket attacks were coming from,” he said. “It was kind of a normal day, you’d be walking down to the chow hall and hear, ‘Weeeeeerrrrrr. Boom!’ You’d hear it just off in the distance a little; it happened every day.”
When his unit returned to Haditha in late September, activity in the area had increased. Weathers, who was living in the abandoned Haditha Dam at the time, recounted with clarity the day everything changed.
“First week in October, and on Oct. 4, actually two days before that on Oct. 2, we were sitting back at base, we had just come in from being out for four days. ... All of a sudden it started going crazy in the dam, command staff and stuff was running around. You could tell they were frantic,” he said. “And apparently what had happened is, the other platoon that took our place out there was on post and they had a recruiting day at the police station, the local police station for Iraqi police. … There was roughly 200 people out here in front of this building, waiting to find out because of the jobs. … A terrorist, I guess, had drove straight into the crowd and detonated a vehicle bomb and killed like 30 or 40 people or something.”
A second police station was bombed the following day, putting U.S. military in the area on high alert.
“I remember how strange that day was actually because … at this point I had been four months with no rain, clear blue skies, no clouds, I mean just what you’d think of the desert,” Weathers recalled. “After that went off, it was strange, we came back to our post and then all of a sudden a sandstorm blew in which was the first sandstorm in four months. And it was like a sandstorm, like a blizzard here, where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, just covered everything. Then after that it rained, which was wild. … I look back now and think, ‘I wonder if I was being told something.’”
On Oct. 4, with only six months left on his military contract, Weathers’ world was turned upside down. As part of the quick reaction force, the mission that day was securing the targeted police stations.
“It was, like, 7 o’clock Oct. 4 ... We were closing up shop; we had been there all day. Nothing happened. The way it was set up, me being the driver of my squad, and the platoon that was already out there sent one of their drivers down from one of their trucks. It was just two truckloads of Marines, some sitting on security outside the building watching, while the others were inside securing, clearing out the building. I was sitting with my truck and the building was in the middle. ...
“There was a side road … that led out to the main road. Well our trucks, we pulled our trucks in pointed in either direction on that side road to block anybody from coming in there. … I had my machine gunner up on the turret on my truck, and I was talking to him. ... I had just taken, you know it was the end of the day, it was hot, we were getting tired, and I had a neck protector on my vest and I had unsnapped it. It was hanging down. I had taken my Kevlar [helmet] off and set it on the dash of the humvee. My M-16 was still where if I was sitting [in the driver’s seat], I had it leaned up [beside the seat] so I could grab it if I needed it. ...
“I had the door open, my back to the main road. … I’m talking to the turret gunner. I don’t remember what we were talking about, we were just talking. All of a sudden I saw this look on his face. He got real serious and ducked down behind his gun ... And I turned around just to see what he was talking about, and at the same time I turned around, I had my hands up on the steel-plated door there. There was a Suburban coming down the main road. It was, like, a ’72 model, it was like a 1970s Suburban. I could see this Iraqi driving it. He was the only one in the car. He was coming down the main road, and as I turned around is when he was getting in the dirt off the side of the road. He wasn’t slowing down. ... That was about 30 yards to my left.
“I didn’t even have time to react. I just turned, looked and he was coming off the dirt, off the road, plowing through the dirt. He cut in that little side street there where we were at and right in front of me, probably from here to the door there [a distance of about 15 feet], it just disappeared, detonated, disappeared. It was the most immense heat I ever experienced. The only thing between me and it — and I was the closest to it which is amazing I’m not in pieces — was that steel door.
“On the back side of the door were bolts, exposed bolts [about an inch-and-a-half long] that plated the door together. I think that’s what happened to my arm ... That’s the only injury I knew I had at the time. I was standing at the door and all of a sudden it detonated and it knocked me, it knocked me 15 feet back and I landed on my back. ... And, of course, my ears, I couldn’t hear. It felt like I was in a fish bowl, just that ‘whoooooo’ you see in the movies. That’s an accurate depiction of what you experience. And this immense heat, I thought I had lost my face cause of just the feeling of that heat on my skin.
“But when I landed on my back I looked up in the sky and all these car parts are falling out of the sky on fire. And I thought, ‘Man, one of these things is going to fall and hit me.’ I thought any minute, any second an engine block is going to come flying out of the sky or something, so I rolled to my right side and [my right] arm wasn’t working, which is why I knew this was an injury.
“...I just rolled to my side and pulled myself up under the back tire of my humvee where the tailgate was and I laid there. Of course, you know, you start screaming or hollering. They pulled me out from under the truck, and I kept saying, ‘My arm, my arm.’ The doc started working on me — he didn’t even touch my arm — he started working on my neck. That’s when I realized something was up because they were working on my neck and I was on my back. Then another one came running over and started working on my leg, and I guess I was bleeding pretty good. It was wild though.”
Weathers suffered an injury to the neck, right arm and the leg, where shrapnel remains lodged near the wound.
“It was actually like a mushroom cloud like you see in the movies, and when it went off, we disappeared in the fire. [The Marines who witnessed the bomb] thought basically all of us were wiped out. ... But nobody was killed except for the Iraqi,” he said.
Weathers was evacuated, along with the other humvee driver, 45 minutes back to the Haditha Dam, where a field surgeon began the initial treatment.
“At that point, I was asking about a buddy of mine who’s dead now,” Weathers said through tears. “I kept asking if everybody was OK. I remember asking about Ski, and I asked so many times — and I hadn’t had morphine at this point ... I kept trying to raise up and look, and the surgeon said, ‘Son, if you raise up again, I’m going to have to stick you with this morphine to get you to calm down.’”
He eventually was given pain medication and medevaced to Al Asad, where he was given the one phone call he made home to his now wife. It took Weathers almost two weeks to return to the U.S. He received an honorable discharge and was awarded the Purple Heart in February 2005.
Following Sept. 11, the military underwent changes brought on by the unexpected assault. It is now larger, more closely connected to the CIA, more practiced at taking on terrorists and more respected by the American public.
The military grew larger over the past decade, but the growth was uneven. The Army expanded from about 480,000 in 2001 to 572,000 this year, and the Marine Corps grew from 172,000 to 200,000, although both are to begin scaling back shortly. The Air Force and Navy, by contrast, got smaller. The Air Force lost about 20,000 slots since 2001 and the Navy lost about 50,000.
In percentage terms, the biggest growth in the military has been in the secretive, elite units known as special operations forces. They surged to the forefront of the U.S. military’s counter-terror campaign almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, helping rout the Taliban in late 2001 and culminating in May 2011 with the Navy SEAL team’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. And even though al-Qaida’s global reach has been diminished, the increased role of special operations forces is likely to continue.
In the past two months, the U.S. military has marked drastically different milestones in the two-front war: August marked the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the almost 10-year fight, but it was also the first month with no casualties in Iraq. The death toll among American forces in Iraq now stands at 4,474. The total for Operation Enduring Freedom is 1,741, with 1,643 of those coming in Afghanistan. The only Bartow County casualty was U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Seth Sharp, 20, of Adairsville, who died July 2, 2009, in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Loss of life is not the only obstacle facing American troops and the veterans returning home. Troops are growing weary from war, committing suicide at an alarming rate and training less for conventional warfare.
The Army and Marine Corps in particular — both still heavily engaged in Afghanistan — will struggle to retrain, rearm and reinvigorate their badly stretched forces even as budgets begin to shrink. And the troops themselves face an uncertain future; many are scarred by the mental strains of battle, and some face transition to civilian life at a time of economic turmoil and high unemployment. The cost of veterans’ care will march higher.
Weathers, who admits to nightmares after being injured, talked candidly about his dramatic exit from the Marine Corps.
“They don’t give you classes or anything ... We took a written pysch evaluation. ‘How many times do you see bodies in your dreams? How many times in a live scenario have you seen a body?’ stuff like that. ‘Do you have feelings of beating women?’ Just stupid questions, but it was, like, that was the extent of preparing you for civilian life.”
Alcohol became the answer.
“When I got out, it’s fair to say I pretty much was an alcoholic. Drinking every day, I drank a case of beer every day,” said Weathers, who thanks God for a wife stayed through the toughest times. “Thank God she stuck with me, but I don’t see how she did it.”
He said he would become angry for no reason at all, but it took almost a year for him to realize he had a problem.
“New Year’s Eve we had fireworks, and [they] wouldn’t let me play with the fireworks because I was too drunk,” he said. “And I took it personal because, you know, nobody would let me touch the fireworks, because I was so used to carrying grenades and stuff, and now no one’s letting me play with fireworks. ... I want to say at that point I remember probably realizing that there was an issue.”
Weathers’ answer came through the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, where he has been a deputy for five years.
“... Probably the sheriff’s office is what brought me to the point I am in my life. I feel stable,” he said. “I have a beer every now and then, but I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a loving husband and a great father, everything I ever wanted to be.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.