When 9/11 hit, everyone in America knew in an instant that we were under attack.

Almost everyone.

You see, some Marines who would be some of the first called to defend us couldn't quite be sure their drill sergeants weren't messing with their heads during boot camp.

As our world changed forever 17 years ago today, those who signed up to serve went from basic training straight to war because of it.

Terrorists hijacked commercial jets crashing into landmarks, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.

It didn’t seem real.

[RELATED: Ducey orders flags lowered in remembrance of 9/11 victims]

While live news reports reinforced the unthinkable, Justin Henderson didn’t have that luxury.

"Things are different in boot camp. You’re kind of cut off from the world. You don’t have everyday communication," he said.

So when Marine drill sergeants, trained to throw you off your physical and mental game, call the platoon together with news you'd never expect in a million years, Henderson's reaction was understandable.

"They said there were jets flying up and down the corridors all over the West Coast, through downtown San Diego and just everywhere and that the entire country was just in panic mode," he remembered.

"And it sounds ridiculous," he said, "but at first we didn’t even believe them!"

[RELATED: Tempe Healing Field commemorates the 17th anniversary of 9/11]

Henderson said it didn't truly sink in until they saw the Sunday paper for themselves four days later.

"I think it was at that moment and at that time that we all realized and believed that we really were going to be the next generation of Marines. That we’re not just being thrown into combat, but we’re going to be asked to defend our nation. There’s a difference," he said.

When the time came, he said every one of his boot camp brothers crossed the line to volunteer to ship out into combat immediately.

[RELATED: 'Wake-up call': 9/11 prompted some to move away to new lives]

Henderson's first mission in Iraq was serving as the personal security detail for the battalion commander.

On May 7, 2005, chance and circumstance thrust his team into an ambush in Haditha.

"It was just that week, we swapped duties with another platoon," he said.

"We happened to be sitting at the front gate ready to go out on observation, and we got the call that there was unrest in the city."

Insurgents had taken hostages at the hospital.

"And then it all just went south very very quickly," he said.

A suicide bomber in a white cargo van took out their first Humvee.

"You know how things kind of go in slow motion sometimes?" he asked. "I remember these large chunks of metal and stuff just come flying up at my vehicle, hitting me with a barrage just one right after the other after the other," he said.

"Then I remember looking up after that initial explosion and seeing an insurgent on top of the hospital with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and him putting it into position and firing that RPG at my vehicle. I grabbed the steering wheel and just kind of clenched tight, knowing that I was dead," he said.

"And when he fired, that RPG, it hit the vehicle and it didn’t go off!"

"It hit the bulletproof glass on the passenger side and bounced on the ground and exploded and just about took my entire front end of the Humvee out," Henderson said.

"To be pinned down in that type of situation for 30, 40, 50 minutes, it seems like an eternity; it really does," he said.

Four Marines died that day.

And another nearly 7,000 U.S. troops died in the post-9/11 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[RELATED: U.S. marks 9/11 with somber tributes; Trump speaks at PA site]

That's why to him, on this day, and every day, service, sacrifice and patriotism in an increasingly indifferent America are even more important to remember, respect, and fight for.

"I look at everything differently now that I’ve got a child," he said.

As a new father, he says he is more hopeful than fearful for our future because tragedies from our past can inspire us to be intentional about taking nothing for granted.

"Now’s the time to take a sidestep to really think about it. Think about your world. Think about the type of world that you want to leave for your children," Henderson said.

As we remember the terrorist attacks 17 years later, here are a few pics from my visit. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a must see while in NYC #NeverForget ???? https://t.co/RtWVbayggu— Javier Soto (@JavierSotoTV) September 11, 2018
We will never forget. Today, we remember those who lost their lives and the families that lost someone 17 years ago. #911remembrance pic.twitter.com/ahSCJhIbsD— Phoenix Police (@phoenixpolice) September 11, 2018
Thanks to @chopperguyhd for this powerful imagery of a hiker holding the American flag on top of Piestewa Peak this morning ???? #azfamily #neverforget #September11 pic.twitter.com/OVi5t6nx6j— Mark Sheridan (@Mark3TV) September 11, 2018
Click/tap here to download the free azfamily mobile app

.

Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

3TV News Anchor

Recommended for you