TAMPA, Fla. - Almost from the moment the Twin Towers fell, Col. DJ Reyes, Sgt. John Ubaldi, and Sgt. Ryan Cobin knew they would either be needed in Afghanistan -- or they would insist on going.
"I left USF, went to a recruiter's station, and by August 2002 I was headed to Basic Training," remembers Cobin.
He was a medic who, during tours in 2005 and 2009, mostly treated anti-Taliban Afghan troops who had been hit by roadside bombs.
"These were people who were out there just trying to improve their position in life, and so were we," said Cobin.
Sgt. John Ubaldi, now of Tampa, remembers seeing flag-draped coffins one day, while the next seeing young girls headed to school in poor mountain regions of Afghanistan.
As the streetfighting stretched from months to years to decades, the pledge to honor American sacrifices with a commitment to finish the job smacked into the reality of a war that seldom got easier.
"It's not just Republican or Democrat, it's that the ecosystem thinks from a western approach," said Ubaldi. "It doesn't look at it from how the Afghans see it."
Americans eventually saw it as a place where 2,372 troops died, where more than 20,000 were wounded and $2 trillion were spent.
Osama bin Laden was killed and al-Qaeda was deprived of its base of operations.
Though Afghanistan's security is unstable -- thanks to a resurgent Taliban -- and some US lawmakers and military advisors argue against a pullout, the Trump and Biden administrations agreed that wholesale American commitments are un-needed to prevent international terrorism.
Col. Dj Reyes says he'll never forget hearing a weekly list of names of Americans who wouldn't be going home alive.
"War is just ugly business," said Reyes. "It takes all of us. It takes a lot of smart people. It takes a nation to actually get through this together."
Lists of names -- from Ground Zero to Afghanistan -- have left behind an empty feeling.
"This was the place 9/11 was planned and prepared for, so that's really why we were there," added Cobin.