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Young People Reflect on How 9/11 Helped Shape Generation

September 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
When terrorists struck in 2001, many young people on the West Coast learned of the attacks as they were getting ready for school. Judy Woodruff reports from California on how 9/11 helped shaped the lives and choices of many young Americans.

JESTIN KUSCH, Milwaukee, Wis.: I feel that people place a lot more interest on what’s going on internationally now, rather than what was going on before 9/11 where we were more inward.

JORDAN BOBERG, Rochester, N.Y.: I think it was definitely a wake-up call for us, kind of realizing we’re not the only country in the world type of deal. It seemed like we’re an egotistical country. So I think it humbled us.

STEPHEN HOUX, Oceanside, Calif.: National security is a lot safer now that we’ve engaged the targets out there in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think it has helped on our terrorism both on home front and also out there in the Middle East.

MOLLY GAIR, Lancaster, N.H.: I think it changed our perception of America and what that meant, you know, as a much more unified body than it had been in the years previous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All across the country, young people like the ones we just met can barely remember the pre-9/11 world. Many were children then, old enough to know their parents were upset about something, but not able to understand why.

In the past decade, they have learned about and processed the events of that day in many different ways. We went to a small town in central California, about as far away from Manhattan and the Pentagon as the place can be to talk with some members of this very special generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that September morning, when terrorist struck in New York and Washington, the sun had not yet come up in the small city of Clovis, Calif., next to Fresno in the heart of that state’s fertile agricultural belt. By the time households began to stir, horrific images were filling the airwaves.

WOMAN: It was a Boeing 737.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For almost all of the West Coast’s younger generation, word came while they were at home getting ready for school.

Reed Helsel, who works on his family’s ranch, just outside Clovis, was 13 on 9/11 and remembers hearing the news.

REED HELSEL, age 13 on Sept. 11, 2001: In the morning when I woke up and went downstairs, the news was on, and seeing the first tower hit and the smoke coming out of it, and then as the plane flew into the second one, I remember running upstairs and telling my mom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nanny Okwelogu, a star track athlete at her Clovis High School and a freshman at Princeton this fall was just seven at the time.

NANNY OKWELOGU, age 7 on Sept. 11, 2001: I clearly remember waking up that morning. It felt like any other morning. But, then I quickly realized that something was not normal, that my mom was on the phone with her sisters and she seemed frightened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alfredo Guerrero, who today drives a bus for the city of Clovis, was 12 and in the seventh grade.

ALFREDO GUERRERO, age 12 on Sept. 11, 2001: Seeing those planes crash into the buildings and seeing all those scenes where the people were running for their lives and not knowing what was going on, to think about that is a horrible, horrible thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On a recent summer Sunday, we asked eight young people who grew up in Clovis or nearby Fresno to join us at Luna Pizzeria to ask about their memories and the effect 9/11 has had on them. It was clear the shock here 3,000 miles away was every bit as real as it was back East. For all, their first take was through the reactions and emotions of parents and other family.

NANNY OKWELOGU: It was really deeply unnerving, unsettling to them because they left Nigeria, a country that’s been racked by civil wars and where crime is rampant for America where they believed they would be safer, more secure, and for something like that to happen here was just very unsettling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Carolyn Cozzi at 17 was a senior in high school.

CAROLYN COZZI, age 17 on Sept.11, 2001: I didn’t know what to do. I have never seen my mom really cry because she’s very protective. She wants to make sure that everything is OK. She was just very still, very frozen. She can’t really talk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for their sense of vulnerability, it varied.

Do you remember people expressing fear?

CAROLYN COZZI: Not necessarily. It was just more emotional about what happened in New York. It wasn’t a fear that they were going to come to California. There was no — they — we didn’t even think that that would even happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Bethke was 12 years old.

ANDREW BETHKE, age 12 on Sept. 11, 2001: I didn’t have like any frame of reference for anything like this. I mean, I guess the only thing I was exposed to was like the Oklahoma City bombings and I was young when that happened. I hadn’t really heard of the World Trade Center except in a “Simpsons” episode reference. I mean it was just, there was no — I couldn’t really grasp what exactly this meant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Kristin Torres in the seventh grade in 2001 recalls sitting in her father’s truck before school listening to the radio and being concerned.

KRISTIN TORRES, age 12 on Sept. 11, 2001: It’s all very confusing when you’re 12 years old and I really thought, you know, OK, this happened in New York, this could happen again in California. I was worried that there were going to be more attacks, that this wasn’t an isolated event.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Alyssa Stemler, who was 9 years old on 9/11, it was anything but isolated. Her father Jim is a firefighter. For him, for their family, what happened at the World Trade Center had an immediate and powerful emotional element.

ALYSSA STEMLER, age 9 on Sept. 11, 2001: We live kind of with a fear that, you know, at any given moment he could be gone, and so I think for him seeing that reaction, seeing that actually happen somewhere else was — kind of hit home for him and for us later on that was a big deal to our entire family.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now 19 and studying to go into the music business, Alyssa says 9/11 didn’t affect her career choice, but she knows many for whom it did.

ALYSSA STEMLER: Definitely for a lot of my friends and for a lot of my graduating class, a good percentage of them immediately went off to boot camp and started serving in the military. There — I have so many friends that I had to say goodbye to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a police officer, Brandon Robla was 16 in 2001. Even though he comes from a military family, he says he didn’t make up his mind to join up until after the attacks.

BRANDON ROBLA, police officer: As soon as 9/11 came about, it slowly started like, I can do this, you know, and then by the time I was a senior in high school, I couldn’t wait to go. I felt like I was missing something and that I need to hurry up and go to boot camp.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brandon joined the Marines right out of high school and served six months in Iraq in 2005.

BRANDON ROBLA: I wanted to do something bigger than just me, and the best way I could do it was to actually join the military and serve my country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Clovis is known to have larger-than-usual number of its young people join the military. Nationally fewer than seven percent of those eligible join up. In this area, the percentage is higher. One high school in town, Buchanan, has the sad distinction of having eight of its former students lose their lives in these wars. More than any other school in California.

CAROLYN COZZI: This particular person, I knew him. You know, we went to each other’s houses for lunch and things like that. I did not know that he enlisted and was over there until he passed away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In part as a result of 9/11, Andrew Bethke, now 22, plans to teach Middle East history. He says he feels the older generation has made choices for his generation without thinking through the consequences.

ANDREW BETHKE: It seems to me that we’re sort of being asked to shoulder with lives and financial resources and time, you know, the end result of all of these policy decisions and nobody is really asking the questions: do you want to do this? Do you think this is right? Do you think this is fair?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nanny Okwelogu, today 17 and the youngest of the group, explains candidly that for her peers, politics and policy is not a main focus.

NANNY OKWELOGU: I would say my end of a generation is more likely the talk about what was happening on MTV than what was happening on CNN. So, it’s not a topic that comes up in conversation very often.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nanny says the longest-lasting outcome for her from 9/11 was becoming aware that initial perceptions of people can be wrong.

NANNY OKWELOGU: People of Middle Eastern dissent, you look at them differently, but you have to catch yourself and know that not all people that look a certain way act a certain way or have certain beliefs. So I’m glad that 9/11 made me aware of that. In our generation, particularly it’s unpopular to be prejudiced, so I think that our generation checks other people in our generation by saying, that’s not cool. Everyone is the same, we have to accept everyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of the older ones in the group said they think prejudice lingers. But what they all agreed on is that 9/11 helped shape their generation.

REED HELSEL: Yes. I think 9/11 did shape our generation because it made our generation go into the war, and it’s changed everybody that’s gone into it. Some of the people coming home, they’re not the same, and that’s what’s changing our generation and shaping our generation.

CAROLYN COZZI: There you go. I don’t think that we’re marked 9/11 generation. I think that’s a significant part of our generation. But, we are also going to be known as having the lowest jobs here and that we’re in debt and, you know, probably more things to come.

BRANDON ROBLA: I think there’s a lot of other positive points and things that my generation will be remembered for. There’s technology and social networking and I don’t see this being the only thing that my generation is remembered for or known as.

OKWELOGU: I do believe that with time the events of 9/11 won’t feel so immediate and they won’t define our entire life. It’s not going to be something we’ll forget, I know that much. That it’s going to be something that we take with us as we age, but I don’t think it’s going to define our entire existence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At this point in their lives though, for all these young people, the memory of 9/11 is still fresh.