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Elkridge man in Afghanistan one of many spurred by 9/11 to join military

Justin Sablowski kept turning the thought over in his head, pondering what the loved ones of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, were feeling. He hadn't lost any family in the attacks, but one question weighed on him: What if that were my family?

The answer was easy: "I'd do something about it," he said.

A few years later, he enlisted in the Army, one of countless young men and women spurred into service after the terrorist attacks of 10 years ago. The Elkridge resident, 28, is now a sergeant and on his second tour of duty overseas in a war zone.

"I no longer wanted to watch on TV or hear on the radio what others were doing for our country, but to be a part of what we were doing," Sablowski told The Howard County Times, in an email message from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

On 9/11, Sablowski was just months removed from graduating from Howard High School.

"He said, 'Mom, that wasn't right what happened,'" recalled his mother, Sandy Sablowski. "And he had to join.

"We didn't want him to, because we knew where they were going to send him," she said. "But he was determined. He just felt it was wrong what happened to our country, so he wanted to join."

He joined in June 2004. His first tour was in Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra and southern Iraq, and ran from summer 2007 to March 2008.

"I'd basically prepped myself physically based upon the thought of being in combat very shortly," Sablowski wrote. He was motivated by the thought of friends and family who had also served in the military, including one grandfather who was in the Army and another who was in the Marines.

"It made me feel that I should do my part, too, and the 9/11 memories of what happened made me fired up enough to push my physical limits harder and harder to get in shape for what I was about to take on," Sablowski wrote. "And with that came the mental toughness."

Mom: 'I was just a mess'

Sandy Sablowski, however, was on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum while Justin was overseas.

"I was just a mess. I would not leave the house," she said. "I would sit and wait for him to call and every time he could call I would spend the time crying. I'd think to myself that I had to stop so I could talk to him. Eventually I got past that."

She was terrified of what her son would see and how he would react. She and Thomas Sablowski, Justin's father, felt helpless as parents.

"We felt it was our job to protect him," Sandy said. "It was like Justin took over our role to make us feel better about what he would be venturing into."

They thought Justin would serve one tour and then find something else. He'd been doing security work before joining the military and his goal growing up was to become a police officer.

"However, he seemed to find something that made him feel like such a part of something," Sandy said.

Said Sablowski: "I'm just glad to be in a position to make an impact and fulfill my duty as an American."

This tour in Afghanistan is a much shorter one than the time in Iraq. He left just before Easter and could be back by late October, Sandy said.

"I currently work on a personal security detail," Sablowski wrote. "Afghanistan is a lot different from Iraq. [It is] not exactly what I was expecting, but definitely an experience that I can say is worth the trip and is the least I can do when others have given so much more."

Sablowski, who has an older brother and two younger sisters, uses modern technology to remain in contact with his family, communicating with them via video over the computer.

"He jokes around with his sisters and that makes us feel better," said Sandy, who added she cried the first time Justin returned home and is sure she'll do so again.

"I'll just be very happy to have him home and keep him home for a while, but I know he'll go again," she said.

"We now think he will make a lifetime career of it. He feels very dedicated to this," Sandy said. "I'm very proud of him. I think that was very brave of him to want to do it for that reason, to put himself out there for everyone else so we can be able to live here in a free world. I think that's a big thing for him to do."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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