Nashville Public Radio: For Some, September 11th Was Call to Act

When passenger-filled airliners flew into the Twin Towers 10 years ago, many considered it this generation’s Pearl Harbor. In terms of lives lost, 9/11 was even bigger. As for a rush to the military recruiting office, not even close.

“There was just a mass exodus of young men joining the Navy and Marine Corps as soon as they became of age,” says retired Brigadier General Patrick Harrison of Franklin. “I had a cousin who went in at 15 somehow.”

“Everybody, everybody joined in and wanted to support the war effort,” he says.Harrison was 14 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had to wait until age 17 to enlist. The attack on American soil was pivotal, he says, and not just for young men.

James Mackler says he identifies with that generation. The Nashville attorney could be considered one of the 9/11 recruits – a relatively small fraternity for which the military has no exact count.

On September 11th he was in Denver, getting ready for a Tuesday at the law office. Eating his bowl of cereal, he became glued to the TV with breathless accounts on the Today Show, the first plane, and then a second.

What turned out to be terrorist attacks hit home for Mackler more than some. He grew up in New York City. His mom was still a teacher there. But like most Americans, Mackler didn’t immediately pack his bags for boot camp. Yet it bugged him that friends and coworkers got back to life as usual in a matter of weeks.

A Pearl Harbor Moment

“For me, I really felt like we had been attacked,” he says. “It felt like a Pearl Harbor moment, and I felt like I had to do something.”

Mackler thought the FBI could use his skills as an attorney. After a months-long hiring process, he was told the Bureau needed linguists, not lawyers. Still motivated, he found an Army recruiter’s office.

“Honestly, I looked around the room and saw posters of helicopters,” Mackler recalls. “I said if I can do anything, I want to be a pilot.”

Being 30 at the time, the recruiter told Mackler he was ‘a little old’ but that if he could get an age waiver and pass an assessment test, flight school was a possibility.

“I said ‘sign me up.’”

Then he told his family.

“I said, ‘you’re doing really well at your law practice. Things are going well. Honestly, why?” says Carol Lisnow, Mackler’s mother.

“I was just so surprised at that time in his life, because other people going into boot camp at that time were 18 years old, 19 years old,” she says.

But Mackler kissed his wife goodbye and headed to basic training, where he says he was easily the oldest and most educated. In flight school, the academics came easy. He struggled to keep up in the cockpit.

“I felt like the younger flight students, who probably grew up more than I had playing video games, really seemed to pick up on the actually mechanics of flying a helicopter,” he says.

Finally Deployed, to Iraq

But he passed the courses, and as a Chief Warrant Officer deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in 2005, flying Blackhawks over Baghdad. The focus was now on Iraq, no longer the al Qaeda haven of Afghanistan.

“9/11 prompted me to join, but I wouldn’t say I was in Iraq because of 9/11,” Mackler says. “By the time I got to that point, I was in Iraq to protect my fellow soldiers and be part of the fight they were fighting.”

Trying to link everything back to September 11th could drive a soldier crazy, he says, especially when missions – on their face – seemed pointless or even ineffective.

At times, operations would include landing in someone’s back yard, pulling a family out of the house and searching the house.

“Then we would just take off again,” Mackler says. “You knew that that family, who might have been neutral on the war, probably left with a very bad experience.”

After a year hovering around Iraq, Mackler hung up his flight suit, deciding he would never be as good a pilot as lawyer. So he joined the JAG Corps, prosecuting Fort Campbell soldiers for domestic violence and drunk driving.

He witnessed the effects of two drawn out wars. AWOL cases drew particular empathy because he had his own dark time during basic training when his marriage was falling apart.

“The only option I had available to me – which was recommended by several 18 year olds – was to go AWOL,” Mackler says. “That was not an option I was going to choose.”

Mackler left active duty on good terms earlier this year. Military service means he missed out. Contemporaries are making senior partner or becoming judges, but he says he’s not jealous. And it’s hard to feel sorry for himself.

“I did one deployment. I was gone for one year,” he says. “I wasn’t seeing the worst that there is.”

Some fellow Army pilots are on their fourth and fifth tours, trying to wrap up wars a world away from Ground Zero.

Listen to the interview>>