On Sept. 11, 2001, Sean McLaughlin watched the second tower fall from across the river.
Ten years later, the sophomore chemical engineering major stood at the War Memorial Pylons alongside fellow members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.
The events of that day set many of them on a course toward service — a course that brought them all together Sunday to mark the anniversary of both a national tragedy and a generational shift.
Maj. Gen. Randy Fullhart, Tech’s commandant of cadets, said current members of the corps were undoubtedly influenced by the Sept. 11 attacks and the decade that followed.
“I think this generation is reflective of values that are born of challenge — whether that be the challenge of terrorism or the challenge of a changing global economy,” Fullhart said. “I think there is a realization of the value of ethical leadership in our military and in our society. They have come here realizing that this is where those skills will be honed, where those values will be reinforced.”
Those applying to join the corps are asked, “What major influences in your life made you want to join the Corps of Cadets?”
For Zach Summer, a freshman from Stafford, Va. in university studies, Sept. 11 was the answer.
“I saw the leadership that was happening in our country,” Summer said. “All the leadership and courage they showed that day inspired me to become better myself.”
Summer said he made an unconscious decision that day.
“My third grade class was in recess, and all the teachers came out crying in panic,” he said. “At the time, I really didn’t realize what it meant. But when I got home, my mom explained it. I didn’t realize it then, but at that point, I knew I wanted to be in the corps.”
McLaughlin said the devastation from the attacks hit close to home. One of his friend’s parents perished in one of the towers.
“One of the teachers said he got pulled out because the Twin Towers collapsed,” McLaughlin said. “I found out later that his parents died.”
Others said they already knew they wanted to be in the military, but Sept. 11 cemented the decision.
“For a long time, ever since I was a young child, I knew I wanted to be in the military, but I would definitely say that day confirmed it,” said Luke Hinsdale, a junior apparel, housing and resource management major who is in the corps. “Ever since then, I have never wavered from that decision to be a military officer.”
All three men consider themselves part of a surge of young Americans who felt called to do something for the country in the wake of Sept. 11.