MARQUETTE - On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Chris Gokee was at his pastor's house, when he started receiving phone calls from friends telling him to turn on the television.
For the rest of the morning, the pair stared wide-eyed at the graphic images flooding the airwaves. Gokee saw replays of airplanes plunging into buildings, clouds of smoke, crowds of fleeing people. He watched the towers fall.
"We just sat there and watched and wondered how anyone could do that," he said. "Then all the stuff started coming out about how it was a terrorist attack. Then it kind of hit home."
9/11 changed youth attitudes toward
the military ... and they’re still changing
Top, Sgt. Christopher Gokee in Afghanistan, where he served a one-year tour of duty, beginning in June 2009. Gokee, above, is now an Army recruiter based in Marquette. He returned to the U.S. on the Fourth of July 2010. (Photos courtesy of Christopher Gokee)
A decade removed from one of the most infamous days in American history, Gokee, 30, spends much of his time thinking about that morning. Now an Army recruiter based in Marquette, Sgt. Gokee thinks the images of Sept. 11 should be more prominent in today's culture, as to retain their importance. Those images, after all, helped to inform many of his subsequent decisions.
It was then, in the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks, that he resolved, on some level, to join the Army. While watching TV that morning, he had the overwhelming urge to do something to help, but he didn't know what.
"It ended up being military service, to fight for those people that didn't get a chance to fight and to try and keep our country safe. To fight for all those people that were gone in a flash," he said.
But Gokee spent a couple of years contemplating service prior to actually enlisting. According to Pat Grobschmidt, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion Milwaukee, that sort of gut response to the attacks was common.
"What happened at that time was we saw an increase in the interest of people in joining," she said. "We saw more people coming in and asking questions. We saw more people calling."
Still, the same qualification process for enlistments remained in place, and Grobschmidt said it's difficult to tangibly equate the attacks to higher enlistment numbers.
From 2001 through last month, more than 988,000 chose to enlist in either the active Army or the Army Reserve. In each of those years, the Army exceeded its main recruiting goal, and its poised to do so again this year.
Grobschmidt and Gokee both said the Sept. 11 attacks are rarely a motivating factor for people enlisting today. Gokee said many recruits that come through his door enlist in order to receive skill training or to finance continuing education, but many more sign up for a different reason altogether. It's the same thing that motivated Gokee's enlistment so many years ago: a love of country.
When talking to Gokee, that love is often obvious.
Hanging on the wall behind his desk, framed by Army posters and spreadsheets, is a drawing. A gift from a Negaunee High School student, the picture depicts a bald eagle perched before a billowing American Flag. Red, white and blue letters spell out a single word at the top of the page: "Freedom."
A small American Flag patch is also velcroed to his uniform, just above his right bicep. Though the patch is standard military issue, he shows tremendous pride in it.
"That's why I'm doing this," he said. "It's for my country. It's for all those people that are underneath the flag.
"I don't have anything major wrong with me that would limit me from the Army. How can I not do my part in helping defend America?"
And though memories of the Sept. 11 attacks may no longer be driving young Americans to armed forces recruiters, Gokee knows how important those memories are.
"I believe we learn from the past and that it affects our future," he said. "(That day) will affect the future of every single person in America for the next 2,000 years. Not just 10."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.