Jay Ostrich was searching his newspaper’s want ads for a higher paying sales and marketing job when he saw the breaking reports on television that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
As the morning went on, and it became clear that America was under attack, the then 30-year-old decided that getting an office job was no longer his mission.
The following day Ostrich, now of Spring Township, went to military recruiters’ offices to enlist. And after getting himself in shape, he headed off to Air Force basic training before deploying to Iraq and later Djibouti in East Africa in the Air Force National Guard.
“I had to lose 50 pounds and take a $50,000 pay cut, but I felt like I needed to be a part of something bigger than myself, part of the answer to the terror, not just a passive observer,” he said. “Sept. 11 was my call to arms.”
Saturday marks 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, and as the anniversary approached, a number of Berks veterans who’ve deployed to war zones since then reflected on the repercussions of that day and the value of their service.
Ostrich is thankful he volunteered, even though at 32 he was the oldest member of his 1,500 member basic training class to complete it.
“My friends told me that I was too old, too fat and too selfish to join,” he said.
But those same friends celebrated his Air Force successes, and two decades later, at 50 and having reached the rank of major, he remains a member of the National Guard.
Though his battle to overcome post-traumatic stress from his deployments is ongoing, the toll the war took on him was worth it, he said.
“I wanted to make sure those who sacrificed (on 9/11) didn’t do so in vain,” Ostrich explained.
He believes he and those with whom he served achieved that goal by helping to protect the world from terrorism, he said.
Struggle after combat
Kyle Lepkowski, 32, who lives outside Pottstown in North Coventry Township, deployed twice to Afghanistan as a Marine between 2009 and 2011. During his initial tour he was among the first troops on the ground in the South Helmund region, working as an infantry assaultman to clear the Taliban and bring freedom to citizens there, he said.
His first 90 days there he was in active combat, and 13 of the 150 men in his unit were killed. An even greater number of Marines with whom he served have taken their own lives since coming home, he said, and Lepkowski too has struggled with PTSD.
While Ostrich found help in a treatment known as a stellate ganglion block he receives from a private practice, Lepkowski said he benefited from counseling provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There is so much help out there,” Lepkowski said, urging other vets who are having trouble to reach out for that assistance.
“I felt like, ‘Why me? Why doesn’t anyone understand?’” he said. “But there are actually people who do understand.”
Lepkowski, too, is glad he served, in part because he helped Afghans who were living in difficult conditions, he said.
“They’re people who just want to be left alone and live their lives,” he said. “They’re good people.”
It’s been disappointing, he said, to see how quickly conditions deteriorated in Afghanistan as U.S. troops withdrew, especially considering how many service members were hurt and killed there during the long war.
“It’s really unfortunate,” he said, “but the problems there go back a long, long way. I feel when I was over there I did my part, but it’s not our mission anymore.”
A job that matters
Kevin Michaels, 34, of Mohnton is another Marine veteran of Afghanistan, having served two tours from 2012-14.
As a combat engineer his duty was to find and report roadside bombs for removal, a high-risk job in which a mistake would likely cost lives, and in which sniper fire was often a threat.
“We were the biggest targets because we were up front,” he said.
Michaels wanted the job, however, because it mattered so much.
“I loved knowing that everybody who served behind me was safe,” he said. “We found everything so no one else had to get blown up.”
The stress of that work, though, means Michaels also has dealt with PTSD. He was far from alone. More Marines he served with died of suicide than were killed in combat.
It’s been hard for him to see the Taliban returning to power, knowing how costly the fight to remove them was.
“We needed to get out of Afghanistan,” he said, “But the way it happened goes against what we fought for. It boggles my mind.”
He still considers his service worth it, though.
“We were there to stop terrorism from knocking on our door, to stop another 9/11, and we did,” he said.
Opportunity to help
Berks County Veterans Affairs Director Ken Lebron served eight years in the Marine Reserves — including a 2006-2007 deployment to Iraq — and said the 9/11 attacks helped prompt him to enlist.
“I felt like if you can help someone, you should help them,” he said, speaking of his desire to keep America safer.
Lebron knows many Afghanistan veterans have been troubled by what’s recently happened there, with some asking if their service was all for nothing.
“While it was not an ideal resolution, the war was going on too long, and it (the withdrawal) was something that had to happen,” he said. “Maybe there would never been an ideal situation to end it.”
Those who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere during the last 20 years should be proud for volunteering to defend America, though, and for the good they did for people in those countries, he said.
“Because of their involvement,” he said, “countless lives were impacted in a positive way.”
Source: Berkshire mont