It should have been a typical day at East Hampton High School, but Sept. 11, 2001, was anything but that.
Arron McLaughlin was sitting, ironically, in his history class when he learned of the terror attacks. What he saw later in the morning stunned him.
“Disbelief … and the magnitude of it surprised me,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like that at all.”
For McLaughlin, the events of this day were a factor in his enlisting in the Army.
“It definitely was," he said. "I was going to join anyway, but that just kind of pushed me.”
Pushed as in he wasted little time, enlisting before finishing high school and attending basic training between his junior and senior years.
Contrary to what one might think, there was not a significant spike in enlistment following 9/11. However, while Americans recoiled in disbelief and anger that their homeland could be attacked, the vivid images of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Pentagon stoked the fire of patriotism in enough people who did answer the call to serve or re-enlist.
As the debate to reinstate the draft faded, McLaughlin's training as an infantry mortarman began. McLaughlin first was sent to Iraq in 2005. A second tour, this time to Afghanistan, followed in 2009. While conducting operations in Nuristan Province, his unit came under fire and McLaughlin, a Sgt., was injured, sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
What does McLaughlin think when he looks at his Purple Heart?
“Lucky to get back because we lost a person over there," he said. "It means a lot to me because he received the same thing … he never got to come home and I did.”
Despite his close call, McLaughlin has no regrets. “None," he said. "Something needed to be done and we brought the fight to them. … Somebody attacked our homeland, it gives you more incentive to go. You’re not fighting somebody else’s war, you actually know what you’re fighting for."
McLaughlin returned home to little fanfare, and his grandmother, Ann McLaughlin, noticed. That our service members were returning from overseas with little if any recognition didn't sit well with her.
With Arron as her inspiration, she decided to do something about it.
Within a few months, the Yellow Ribbon Committee went from an idea to a plan, and by the end of June, it became reality. With the support of town officials and many volunteers, the committee and the town welcomed home its first returning service member, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Michael Flatley. Two others have since returned home and a tree in the village center bears the yellow ribbons of those East Hampton residents still serving overseas.
What does Arron think of his grandmother's effort?
"A good idea," he said. "When I came home I had some people that were happy, of course everyone is happy you're back, but not like the whole town, like a lot of people coming. It means a lot."
Now that he's back and had a chance to reflect and hear the debates on bringing the troops home, McLaughlin, currently assigned to the 1-102 Infantry Regiment Air National Guard unit out of New Haven, isn't optimistic the mission will have a lasting positive impact on Afghanistan.
"They're never going to be for us," he said. "The people are very primitive people and very set in their ways. They're old-school religious. Most of them don't want our help. They take our money and they take the resources we give them, other than that ... once we leave they're just going to crumble."
He is confident, however, that it was the right thing to do.
"I think something had to be done to let them know we're not going to just stand around and take it," he said. "Take the fight to them. ... Getting Osama [bin Laden], was surprising. I didn't think we were ever going to get him. I think it got some closure. If we do leave, something did get accomplished.
"We definitely helped them out. Showed them what they can be. Tried to give them a glimpse of democracy."