Mike Aaron was an 18-year-old high school senior when his father woke him up one early September morning with the news.
There had been an attack in New York that saw planes fly into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Thousands were dead. And soon, America would be at war — one that would see soldiers serving an unprecedented number of tours, coming home in need of services and creating a new generation of veterans.
Two weeks after September 11, 2001, Aaron said, he went down to the recruitment office in Albany and enlisted. He served nearly five years in the Marine Corps with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he came home, there was a transition.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I tried a few jobs — EMT, police, firefighter — and they didn’t work out.”
Eventually he settled into an electrician program and then worked on a family friend’s farm. That’s how he found the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization — VFW Post 584.
“We started coming down here,” Aaron said.
The building at the end of a gravel and dirt road off of Highway 20 east of Albany looks a little different than it did when Aaron first came. The pool table was there, but soon it'll be part of a game room currently under construction. The bar's in the same place, but the lottery space has been walled off so younger visitors can enjoy the space more freely.
“The energy here has changed,” said Aaron, who currently serves as the VFW’s canteen manager and the post’s commander. He also runs a nonprofit, Link Up Vets, that helps returning soldiers with the transition Aaron himself found difficult.
“It was a culture shock,” said Joshua Ruff, a U.S. Army veteran who found Link Up Vets and Aaron after he ended his nine years of service in 2013 that included tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “You come back to an area that’s the same, but you change, and it’s hard to explain.”
A Sweet Home resident, Ruff started a contracting company for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's field office in Portland but said having Link Up Vets has helped make the transition easier.
The organization, Aaron said, can direct veterans to services offered by the Veterans Administration but tries to focus on creating a new shared experience. Outdoor adventures hosted by Linked Up Vets become what veterans share instead of their combat experience, creating a positive shared experience.
Link Up Vets and other grassroots nonprofits are just some of the supports younger veterans have — a stark difference from their older counterparts.
Zach Draper served in the U.S. Army for 14 years in Korea and Iraq. He came home to met his daughter for the first time when she was 17 months old and eventually found the local VFW post.
“Talking with vets from Vietnam and knowing what they went through when they came back from war, it’s something I couldn’t imagine going through,” he said. “Today, there’s an incredible amount of support; it’s just a night-and-day difference.”
All three men enlisted at 18, joining a new generation of veterans who would become part of a new kind of war.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a generation where soldiers have seen as much war in their careers,” Draper said. “I served with a lot of guys who did five, six, seven, eight tours over there, and that’s not normal and should never be normal. The Korean War — you think about how long that lasted, and we have guys who were in when this war started and who are still in.”
Veterans Day can bring veterans' experiences to the forefront of public discourse. For Aaron, he said it’s a time to celebrate and remember. Draper also said the day is one to remember the men and women currently serving. Ruff said he also thinks the holiday is important, but it’s complicated.
“No one really likes to talk about their service,” he said. “I appreciate the day, though. At the same time, I don’t appreciate everyone asking about what I did.”