‘I’m not going sit by and allow this to go down’: Vet talks about the call to serve after 9/11

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After 9/11, many Americans heeded the call to serve and joined our armed forces. Over the past two decades, nearly three million troops have spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It was just luck of the draw that they didn’t pick her plane,” recounts John Tappen.

Tappen remembers Sept. 11, 2001, vividly and the fear he felt for his mother.

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He was just starting his junior year of high school in New Hampshire and his entire school was on lockdown -- but all he could think about was his mom.

“I remember specifically seeing that second plane hitting the World Trade Center and thinking of my mother who flew out of Logan that day … I couldn’t convey how terrified I was,” Tappen said.

In that classroom, Tappen felt hopeless. No way to call her, let alone protect her. Thankfully, her plane was safe, held on the tarmac during the chaos.

But those long hours of uncertainty and the tragic scenes of destruction solidified it, Tappen would join the military when he was old enough.

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“Just something about that stuck in my head and said I’m not going sit by and allow this to go down.”

He served in the U.S. Navy as a flight engineer from 2006 to 2011.

“We worked on P3s and basically doing reconnaissance, sub-hunting … things like that.

”Tappen felt proud and experienced an unbreakable bond with his fellow sailors, but nothing would be the same after his deployment in 2008 to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I thought when I joined that I was going to do 20 years for sure, all in. I think what really took it back for me was deployment,” he explains.

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For the first time, he learned just how lucky we are to live in America. It was humbling yet devastating.

“The level of suffering when you see it in person is just horrible. It did something to me and I just couldn’t see the world the same way anymore after that.”

It took a toll on Tappen and was enough that he chose to leave the service two years later.

He’s not alone.

According to the Warren Institute at Brown University, more than 1.8 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face a life of disability due to the physical and psychological injuries they sustained while serving overseas.

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“It takes something out of you,” Tappen confessed.

It took him years to acknowledge his truth. Tappen told Action News Jax he only recently started feeling like himself again after getting a service dog through K9s for Warriors.

His new best friend Henry.

“He brings the best out of me, Tappen grinned.”

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He is no longer ashamed or embarrassed asking for help, but Sept. 11th, 2001 will forever be etched in his heart, a deep scar that will never go away.

He hopes we as a nation will never forget.

“There are people who gave themselves up for the way that you and I live on a day-to-day basis. You must pay homage; you have to be humble. You have to be humbled by the sacrifices.”