Three veterans reflect on 20 years since Sept. 11 attacks
Difficult experiences taught important life lessons
David Kendrick Jr. is pictured in 2007 during a deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army. (Courtesy of David Kendrick Jr.)
David Kendrick Jr. was just 17 years old when he signed up to join the United States Army. In 2006, the Rochester, New York, native was stationed at Fort Carson as a cavalry scout, he said. Kendrick was 19 when he deployed to Iraq to fight in the “war on terror.”
He was 20 — still too young to drink — when he suffered severe injuries from a sniper’s bullet on June 17, 2007.
“That was what New York Times documented as the bloodiest year of the war,” Kendrick said in a July interview with Colorado Newsline. In 2007 alone, 900 U.S. military service members died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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Newsline asked Kendrick and two other veterans with Colorado ties — retired Air Force Col. Joe Hall and Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia — to reflect on their service to the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent war launched by then-President George W. Bush.
The following accounts are based on the information they provided and corroborated, where possible, by contemporary news articles.
Kendrick’s military service left him with permanent physical and mental scars. He learned to heal by speaking about his experience.
“The sniper’s bullet, it shattered my femur. It severed my femoral artery,” Kendrick said. “It took two blood transfusions for me to heal.”
Because of his extensive injuries, Kendrick was stationed for three years at Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition Unit. WTUs — which have since been rebranded as Soldier Recovery Units — are supposed to help soldiers with complex injuries and illnesses transition back to active duty or retirement from the military.
A 2010 New York Times investigation described WTUs such as Fort Carson’s as “warehouses of despair, where damaged men and women are kept out of sight, fed a diet of powerful prescription pills and treated harshly by noncommissioned officers.”
It took three and a half years of physical therapy for Kendrick to learn how to walk again, he said. When he was discharged from the WTU back to his hometown of Rochester, he “suffered greatly.”
“Because I lost my very best friend the very next day after I got shot, I had a lot of survivor’s guilt because he had children and I didn’t,” Kendrick said. “I was depressed, because I couldn’t be there for my brothers who were still in Iraq, and I was also depressed because here I am, 20 years old with two bullet wounds in my leg, and I didn’t know what my outlook on life was going to be.”
Kendrick started drinking as soon as he left the hospital, even though he was on blood thinners that could lead to deadly consequences in combination with alcohol.
Losing a friend from the unit who’d also combined alcohol and prescription drugs was the wake-up call Kendrick needed.
“To see him lying there in the casket,” he recalled, “and all the pain and the hurt that his friends and family back home felt because of his accidental death, that was like a reality check for me to say ‘Hey man, you have to stop. This isn’t the way to cope with your pain.'”
So, Kendrick signed up for help through Webster, New York-based Warrior Salute Veteran Services. The organization provided him with civilian job training and group therapy sessions.
He became a public speaker for Source America, advocating for veterans like himself with disabilities, and he later started his own company, Lion Speaking Agency.
Now living in Atlanta, Kendrick speaks to groups looking to hire veterans with disabilities about how to make these veterans feel comfortable.
Because I lost my very best friend the very next day after I got shot, I had a lot of survivor’s guilt because he had children and I didn’t.
– David Kendrick Jr.
“There’s so many employers that say, ‘Hey, we are veteran-friendly employers, and we have programs in place for you,'” Kendrick explained. “However, when they get a veteran such as myself who has severe injuries both physical and mental, they don’t know exactly what to do.
“They go by what their HR policy says, and you can’t have the same policy for civilians as you do with veterans who suffer from PTSD and who have severe physical injuries. So I try to educate these organizations on, ‘Hey, here’s what you can expect from a soldier who has been to war.'”
When Kendrick talked to Newsline in July — before the withdrawal of U.S. troops had devolved into chaos — he supported ending the war in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s about time we pull out and focus on healing the bodies and minds of the veterans who have deployed over and over and over again,” he said, “and finally get a hold on … the suicide in the veteran community.”
Retired Air Force Col. Joe Hall’s 32-year military career shaped his views on politics and partisanship.
If you count his four years at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Hall spent more than three decades in the military, spanning four presidential administrations.
After graduating from the Academy in 1992, Hall left Colorado Springs for pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. He learned to fly C-5 cargo planes in Altus, Oklahoma, and flew C-5s out of Dover, Delaware, for two years — participating in U.S. military operations in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia and East Timor. Hall spent a two-and-a-half-year tour in Alaska before joining the B-2 Stealth Bomber program in 1999. He worked as a tactical officer at the United States Military Academy, then headed to Afghanistan in 2010.
Though Hall’s career later included nuclear policy work in Brussels and a stint as defense attaché in Pakistan, commanding the 855th Air Expeditionary Squadron in Kabul was by far the most challenging part of his military service, he said.
“Being deployed, combat operations — I had a lot of people I was responsible for, spread out over a large section of the battle space,” he said. “And you’re kind of resource-limited in a lot of ways, including time.”
The 855th squadron later became the 866th Air Expeditionary Squadron, a name change that coincided with a “surge” in U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan under then-President Barack Obama. Hall commanded the largest Air Force squadron, which at one point included 1,350 U.S. airmen spread across 16 forward operating bases.
Now retired, Hall said it’s frustrating to watch events unfold as President Joe Biden directed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Former President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, and he reduced troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by the time he left office in January.
In April of this year, Biden announced that troop withdrawal would be complete by Sept. 11. The process began May 1 under his leadership.
But a month after the U.S. evacuated Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, the Taliban began to take control of provincial capitals. On Aug. 15, Afghanistan’s capital fell to Taliban forces and the Afghan government collapsed.
Weeks of chaos ensued as Biden sought to meet an Aug. 31 deadline for getting Americans and U.S. allies out of the country. Thousands of Afghans who assisted U.S. troops are believed to still be in the country and could face severe retribution from the Taliban.
“Basically, in my view, the planning of the withdrawal was derelict,” Hall said.
Hall believes both Trump and Biden made foreign policy decisions based on politics, instead of military strategy, and said they’d created a “false narrative” about the need to leave Afghanistan by a certain deadline.
“The worst enemy of the United States right now isn’t the Taliban,” Hall said. “The worst enemy is partisanship, and it’s spinning out of control.”
To ensure a successful future for the United States, the general public should take pains to step outside of a social media echo chamber, he said: “Be better informed and seek alternative viewpoints.”
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia learned the true meaning of sacrifice while dealing with death as a mortuary affairs specialist.
The Pueblo Democrat spent a little over six years in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2003, his job involved conducting search and reconnaissance missions for Marines who’d been killed in combat in Iraq, processing their bodies and returning their remains and personal effects to their loved ones.
It wasn’t what he signed up for — Garcia was originally assigned to an artillery unit and was reassigned before the Iraq War began — and represented “one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever been asked to do,” Garcia said.
It wasn’t just the heavy task of recovering bodies and processing them, but the personal connection he developed to those killed. “Many times you would be processing the body of a Marine who had a picture of their family, or a rosary, or a religious relic,” he explained.
Garcia’s deployment also showed him the extent of the sacrifice that service members could make for their country, he said — not just those who died, but the Marines he encountered who were on their second or third deployment, and hadn’t seen their families in years but for brief stints. “They were stretched thin,” he said.
As a state lawmaker, Garcia has championed legislation aimed at making the transition to civilian life a little easier for his fellow veterans.
With Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat who’s also a veteran, Garcia sponsored House Bill 21-1065 this year, creating a pilot program that allows employers to give special preference to veterans in the hiring process. Businesses hiring veterans and their new employees should both reap the benefits, Garcia said.
Military service members are “men and women of character, integrity, commitment, who serve at a moment’s notice, who make immense sacrifices,” and they are used to interacting with people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, he pointed out.
Garcia and Ortiz also sponsored Senate Bill 21-129, which establishes a pilot program in El Paso County focused on preventing veteran suicide. Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
“I think we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re taking care of those who wear our nation’s uniform,” Garcia said.
On Afghanistan, he had this to say: “For the veterans that I’ve spoken with and from my viewpoint, our time is, we’ve run our course … If not now, when? We’ve been there for 20 years.”
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