Sept. 11 changed destiny for Navy class of 2002

Courtney Senini knew something was amiss when aides started dashing in and out of the classroom, passing messages to the admirals and generals who taught her leadership seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Finally, one of the aides stood before the room of seniors and in a big, puffy voice, said the words that would change their lives: "Ladies and gentlemen, the United States is under attack."

The room fell silent.

An attack on American soil seemed inconceivable when Senini and her classmates entered the academy in 1998. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, and U.S. pre-eminence felt unassailable, almost permanent. Many of the midshipmen expected to "five-and-dive," meaning they would serve the required five years in the Navy and then use the prestige of their academy degrees to land lucrative jobs on Wall Street or at major corporations.

But on that morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as airplanes felled skyscrapers in New York and others slammed into the Pentagon and crashed into a Pennsylvania field, the stakes changed for the Class of 2002.

"If there's one day in my entire life that sticks out, that's it," Senini says. "It shaped what I did in the military and who I wanted to be afterward. It was absolutely the pivotal thing that shaped us."

Maybe the realization didn't set in right away, but it didn't take long for the midshipmen to grasp that in eight months, they would graduate into a more dangerous, uncertain world.

"There was a lot of emotion," Senini recalls 10 years later. "I compare it to Pearl Harbor, but this wasn't an island in the Pacific; it was our nation's capital and New York. It was painful and daunting and frightening to all of us. But at the same time, we were fricking excited to be a small part of going up against the people who attacked us."

In the years since, Senini and her classmates have fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have survived roadside bombs in Fallujah, briefed members of Congress on counterterrorism strategies and forged intimate bonds with Afghan civilians. They have seen inky night skies illuminated only by Tomahawk missiles and gorgeous green valleys where danger lurked behind every rock. Three have been killed in training and one in action. Another lost both of his legs in battle. Another won a Silver Star for valor in combat.

All of it began on that strange September morning when they learned that enemies wanted to kill them on their home ground.

Class President Josh Welle has collected essays from dozens of 2002 graduates describing where naval service took them. He hopes that, combined into a book, the essays will offer a glimpse of how a generation grappled with its sternest test.

"My generation didn't have a compass or a reference point," Welle says. "We had 'Top Gun.' But after 9/11, we found something, a purpose. It's this idea of the long war. We're not trying to be Tom Brokaw's greatest generation. But my classmates have sacrificed their youth, just trying to be this selfless generation that stands the watch during the long war."

The prospect of any war, much less a long one, was an abstraction for members of the Class of 2002 when they showed up in Annapolis as plebes. Many were like Travis Bode, the son of an oral surgeon who grew up in a posh section of Phoenix, Ariz. Weaned on "Top Gun" and "The Hunt for Red October," Bode saw the academy as a springboard to adventure and success.

"There was no war on the horizon," he remembers. "It was, 'Hey, this is a great school. You spend a couple of years doing something fun, you make great connections and then you go into business.' There was no thought to war at all."

Bode had a rare chance to sleep in on Sept. 11. He was on his way to the bathroom about 9:30 a.m. when he saw classmates in the lounge watching television as the World Trade Center collapsed. Within hours, Marines had set up a defensive perimeter around the academy, which seemed a potential target. A battle cruiser appeared offshore.

"It was like, 'Whoa, this is getting serious real quickly,'" Bode says. "It was a total mind shift."

Seth Lynn, a Marine from Westchester, N.Y., remembers sitting around a table with classmates that evening, saying, "Our lives have just profoundly changed. This is what we're going to be doing with our careers."

Welle recalls how locked-down the academy felt, with outside calisthenics canceled and guard watches doubled and tripled. Senior year was supposed to be a time to breathe out. The "firsties" could finally park their cars on campus and hit the town on weeknights. But any looseness vanished overnight.

Workouts became opportunities to harden the body for combat. Class sessions turned into practical discussions of how to respond proportionately to the attacks.

"It went from a good education at a reputable school to: 'We're going to war so we need to train the most we can and learn the most we can right now,'" Bode says.

Even at football games, a moment of silence sobered the brigade. "We had to grow up," Welle says.

Though it was natural to think of how impending war would affect them, they don't remember any urge to flee from the new reality.

"Everyone was single, everyone was between 18 and 24 years old," Bode says. "So it's a lot easier in that context to be gung-ho about it than if you're talking about guys with families. I don't remember anyone saying, 'I'm going to quit because of this.'"

In fact, the number of midshipmen who applied to become Marines, the service most likely to see combat, doubled from the previous year's class. Lynn, whose father was on his way to Lower Manhattan on the morning of the attacks, was among those who wanted to fight.

"For me, being from New York, I felt the attacks very intimately," he says. "I was angry. I felt like I needed to go and prevent this from happening again."

Within a year of graduation, many members of the Class of 2002 were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2003, Senini met her first ship in the Persian Gulf. She watched from the deck as U.S. forces fired a first wave of Tomahawk missiles at Iraq, each one lighting the darkness enough that she could briefly make out the hulls of surrounding ships.

Bode and Welle also served on ships just off the Iraqi coast, transporting Marines to and from combat and providing staging areas for SEAL raids of offshore oil platforms.

As war continued on multiple fronts, the 2002 graduates found themselves dispersed to increasingly varied roles.

Lynn was deployed to Okinawa after graduation and feared he was missing the fight he had been so eager to join. But he was sent to Iraq in 2005, where his unit helped to secure several towns along the Syrian border that had been held by al-Qaida in Iraq.

He was there when Marines retook Al Qa-im, the place where one of his academy mentors, Maj. Richard Gannon, was killed in 2004. "For me, that really brought the whole thing full circle," says Lynn, who now runs a nonprofit at George Washington University that teaches veterans how to run for office.

Lynn remembers the disconnect between observing the war from the ground and watching the television coverage beamed back to the United States. Despite occasional suicide attacks and bursts of machine gun fire, life settled into a comfortable rhythm for him and his men. They felt order returning to the town they occupied. But on television, every new report of U.S. casualties seemed to suggest a war slipping out of control.

"The longer I was there, the more confused I got," he says. "People don't appreciate the complexity of the war. I was able to leave something in a much better state than when I came to it."

In 2006, Bode advised Iraqi sailors as they attempted to rebuild their navy so it could patrol the rivers for smugglers. He observed the simmering ethnic tensions that always threatened to boil over. One time, he heard screaming in Arabic over his patrol boat's radio. The Kuwaiti coast guard was threatening to fire on a merchant ship that failed to fly the Kuwaiti flag on a certain stretch of river. The Iraqis went to intercede.

"All I have is a sidearm," Bode recalls. "There's nothing I can do."

The standoff abated without violence, but Bode took a lesson from it. "We insert ourselves into situations that are more complex than we probably realize," he says from Florida, where he now works as an intelligence officer. "Getting the Iraqis and Kuwaitis to work together, that'll probably take generations."

In 2007, Senini learned that she had drawn the short straw in a lottery and would be involuntarily deployed to Afghanistan. "I was devastated," she says. "I thought, "This is it. I'm going to die in Afghanistan.'"

Senini served as a humanitarian adviser to an Afghan garrison, stationed east of Kabul. The Montana native spent weeks observing the Afghans, asking questions about their families, drinking cup after cup of hot tea despite the wilting heat outside.

Gradually, the walls of mistrust dissolved. She learned to be on alert without fearing every child who approached to request a bite of candy. She came to admire the beauty of a landscape that most of her friends would never see, the fortitude of Afghan women who were reclaiming their roles in a post-Taliban society.

Though the hairs on her neck stood up plenty of times, Senini's luck held out. She always seemed to leave a given place the day before trouble erupted.

"It was the greatest adventure of my life," she says of her year in Afghanistan. "I miss the country, the people."

The transition back home was not easy. She had become hyper-vigilant to changes in body language and tone of voice that might hint at a threat. So simple trips to the mall or the airport were painful. Back in Montana, where she's studying to be a physician's assistant, she hears classmates carp about everyday problems and thinks how grateful they ought to be for running water and easily accessible medicine.

"There's this frustration with people who don't understand how life is in the rest of the world," she says, two years after leaving the Navy.

She looks to her father and uncle, both of whom commanded Marines in combat. Her generation, like theirs, has been shaped in ways that are hard to understand for those who have never been to war.

And it all began on a Tuesday morning in September.