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Wharton Student War Veterans sit on the steps of Huntsman Hall Credit: Shrestha Singh , Shrestha Singh

Thomas Allison was a college freshman when the planes struck the World Trade Center. He could see the smoke all the way from his University of Connecticut campus — some 140 miles from Manhattan.

The next year, Allison ­— now a first-year MBA candidate at Wharton — transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Allison is one among Penn’s community of military veterans, a group for whom 9/11 had a profound impact on the course of their lives. Ten years later, some are only just returning to civilian life at a time when the military has largely faded from the national consciousness and the war has been scaled back.

While Allison said public perception of the war typically has little impact on soldiers, he said the decreased involvement overseas has affected military recruitment and retention — soldiers enlisting now may never see combat overseas, which was a main draw for those who enlisted following 9/11.

One of the biggest surprises for Allison, who finished his military service Sept. 1, was finding that many people at Penn had never known anyone in the military.

According to second-year MBA and juris doctor candidate Sean Gormley, who enlisted in the army in 2002, there is concern within the military about a growing disconnect between military and civilian populations.

“There are two separate worlds that exist,” Gormley said. “There are soldiers on their fourth and fifth deployments and a large population of people who have no connection to the military at all. Because there is no draft, it tends to draw from poor urban populations and rural populations.”

Sept. 11 helped to bridge that gap, at least for a while, drawing people into military service who otherwise might never have joined.

As a senior at Georgetown University in the fall of 2001, the attacks were a turning point in Gormley’s life.

“The world became a very different place overnight it seemed,” he said. “I felt I had a duty to do something about it. It’s one of those things you only get a chance to do once.”

The attacks also hit home for MBA candidate Ryan Daly, whose New Jersey hometown felt the toll of 9/11.

Then a senior in high school, Daly was already bound for West Point, but the attacks made his commitment far more real.

“It’s such a vivid memory for me,” Daly said. “It’s hard to look back because there was a huge surge of patriotism and it’s kind of dissipated since.”

MBA candidate Simon Lee learned of the 9/11 attacks while visiting family in South Korea.

“I remember my grandmother shook me awake and said, ‘Wake up, wake up, your country is under attack,’” he said. “My initial reaction was absolute shock.”

Lee went on to enlist in the navy in 2005, though he said he had friends who went and joined the army on Sept. 12.

“Right after 9/11 there was obviously a very reactionary response and I kind of wanted to avoid that,” Lee said. “I felt compelled to make a personal contribution to the War on Terror and I wanted to do it my own way.”

Now on campus, all four say the reactions they’ve been met with have been overwhelmingly positive, regardless of individuals’ political beliefs.

“From the day I enlisted I’ve always struggled with what to say when people thank me for serving,” Gormley said. “It was something I felt I had to do and I don’t need to be thanked for it.”

For those compelled into service, the 9/11 attacks took them down a path many had never expected and, a decade later, the legacy continues to live large.

“In some ways my memories of that day are very vivid, but it does seem like a long time ago,” Gormley said. “I feel like I’ve lived a full life since then.”

Allison said, for him, the decade following the attacks has raced by: “It really seems to me like it was just yesterday, even though there have been such significant changes globally and in my life since then.”

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