CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- A day that many remember and few will ever forget – the day four planes were hijacked and America was attacked. It was a day that would change the lives of thousands of Americans, on that day and for many years to come.
Born May 13, 1977, Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Spaulding’s life-long dream was to enlist into the Navy as a medical corpsman. He enlisted and left for boot camp July 30, 1999. He completed his training and checked into his first duty station aboard Camp Pendleton, California, and was assigned to 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, during July 2000.
While serving with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, he deployed with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit as a company line corpsman on a Western Pacific Tour, during July 2001.
“We headed to Darwin, Australia, to conduct some training with the Australian Army,” said Spaulding, a Glendale, Arizona, native. “After the training we were going to get a few days of liberty. We came back to the ship following the completion of the training, cleaned up our gear, showered, put on our liberty clothes and headed out. I remember I was in a bar with a bunch of friends when all the lights came on and they started yelling for all the Marines and sailors to get out. We weren’t sure what was going on as we boarded some buses to take us back to the ships.”
The plan was to travel to Australia, Singapore, Hawaii, Bahrain, and Thailand conducting training with the different countries’ military. Little did they know a tragic event would change those plans.
“We were on the buses riding back to the ship, and on the radio you could hear them say, ‘Another plane just crashed into the Pentagon.’ I remember like it was yesterday,” said Spaulding. “People were freaking out, and we are all like ‘what is going on?’ There were chiefs and gunnies with us on the bus, and they said, ‘We are going to Afghanistan. We are going to war.’ I mean they knew right away who it was. It was crazy. They said, ‘We are going to get them.’”
An Islamic terrorist group, al-Qaeda, had launched an attack against America, Sept. 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked: two were flown into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; one plane was flown into the Pentagon; and the fourth was targeted at Washington D.C., but crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers tried to overcome the hijackers.
On that day, more than 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, from the people working in the buildings and the passengers on the planes, to the firefighters and police officers risking their lives to help those trapped in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“We headed full speed North to Jacobabad, Pakistan, awaiting orders from the president to invade Afghanistan, beginning Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Spaulding. “We waited there for a little over a month or so.”
The United States of America responded to the terrorist group by launching the Global War on Terror. They invaded Afghanistan to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda, which was hosted by the Taliban.
“On Nov. 25, 2001, we conducted an amphibious assault over 400 miles into the land-locked country of Afghanistan, becoming the first U.S. ground troops in the region,” said Spaulding. “We set new standards for Marine Corps amphibious doctrine. We landed at a remote airbase, 90 miles southwest of Kandahar, and occupied America’s first forward operating base, Camp Rhino, and maintained the first significant conventional ground presence in Afghanistan.”
Camp Rhino was an abandoned runway just southwest of Kandahar. The 15th MEU’s mission was to seal off the city, cut off incoming supplies and escape routes, and take over the Kandahar airport. At its peak, the Camp contained approximately 1,100 Marines and corpsmen under the command of, then, Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis.
“From November 2001 until the end of January 2002, we lived in fighting holes,” said Spaulding. “Literally, big holes we dug in the dirt, in a perimeter to surround the entire camp, and we went outside the wire and conducted different missions to gain objectives.”
Once they took the Kandahar airfield, the 15th MEU was replaced by the 26th MEU and the Marines and sailors headed back to their respective ships that were anchored and awaiting their return to the Arabian Sea.
Since his first deployment with the first Marine unit into Afghanistan, Spaulding has completed two successful combat tours. One with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, during 2003 as the United States invaded Iraq and during the intense battle in Fallujah, and then with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, during 2005 to 2006.
Now, 13 years later, Spaulding is once again deployed to Afghanistan as the senior medical department representative and serving with the last Marine unit in the country, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan, under the command of Brig. Gen. Daniel D. Yoo.
The missions have changed from counterinsurgency to security force assistance operations throughout the years, and the Marines and sailors currently have the responsibility of retrograding all personnel and equipment out of the country.
“It is such a substantial honor to be a part of the first group that was here as the War on Terror kicked off in 2001, and to now have an active role in the end of operations as the units exit the country,” said Spaulding. “It means a lot to me to be a part of this history 13 years later. I have two boys, and they will read about this in their history books and know that their dad was a part of it.”