Spc. Jesus Roman-Hernandez, stands outside at Bagram Airfield, Afghan-istan. He returned to active duty after witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

(Editor's note: After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many former service members re-entered the military. Following is a story about one Soldier who felt compelled to serve his country in a time of war.)

PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- The morning began just like every other morning. Jesus Roman-Hernandez took a bus from his home in West New York, N.J., to the Newport Mall in Jersey City, to board the PATH train that would bring him to his job with Delta Airlines at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

Roman-Hernandez, who grew up in Brooklyn, took the position with Delta after completing five years in the Marine Corps as an avionics specialist. His transition back to civilian life had begun about 10 months earlier, and the new job allowed him, his wife, and new son to live near his hometown, Family and friends.

When the bus dropped Roman-Hernandez off at the Newport Mall, he made a simple decision that would change the direction of his life forever; he decided to smoke a cigarette before getting on the train.

"I was standing in the parking lot of the mall and looking at the skyline while I smoked," recalled now-Spc. Jesus Roman-Hernandez, a 10th Combat Aviation Brigade early warning systems operator. "All of a sudden, I noticed smoke pouring out of one of the towers of the World Trade Center."

At first, Roman-Hernandez thought it was some kind of accident causing the smoldering plumes pouring from Tower 1.

"At that point, there was a crowd of us just looking and wondering what could have happened," he explained. "Then, we saw the second plane crash into Tower 2. When I saw the second plane hit, that's when it started to look fishy."

The crowd of people in the parking lot watched in shock as their beloved landmark burned and blazed just on the other side of the river.

"I couldn't go to work at that point because the PATH train ran through the World Trade Center, and it was pretty clear that they weren't running any more trains that way," Roman-Hernandez recalled.

"Nobody really understood what was going on. We were all listening to the radio outside of the mall, trying to find out what was happening in the city."

Nobody knew what to do, so they listened and waited and watched the scene just beyond the water. That's when a report broke in -- the Pentagon was just hit.

"Once I heard the Pentagon was hit, the first thing in my mind was, 'We're going to war.' I didn't know with [whom] at the time, but I knew we were going to war," Roman-Hernandez said.

Since he had left the Marine Corps only a few months earlier, the Brooklyn native was still a member of the Inactive Ready Reserve. The Marines could contact him at any time and recall him to active duty.

The thought began to build in his mind. He wasn't sure what to do, but then his attention was diverted. The first tower began to fall.

"It was almost like a movie, even though I was watching everything happening with my own eyes. But watching the towers fall? That was just disbelief, just complete disbelief. It just couldn't be happening," he said.

As both towers collapsed, the former Marine had one other thought, "I better get home."

In the moments that followed the collapse, it became apparent that public transportation would not be an option. The city and everything around it was shutting down.

"Everything was so crazy. You couldn't call. The phones wouldn't work, you couldn't get a hold of your family to make sure everyone was all right, the buses and trains weren't running," Roman-Hernandez said.

"I wasn't sure how the IRR worked, but I thought (the Marine Corps) would recall me for sure. I figured someone was either going to come find me or call me, I just didn't know how it would happen. I kept thinking that I just had to get home and find my uniforms. I ended up walking from Jersey City back to West New York."

Once home, Roman-Hernandez waited for the call that would send him to war -- and he was fine with going.

"New Yorkers, we have an attitude to begin with," he explained. "From my point of view, New Yorkers took the attacks more personally. One of our landmarks was taken, and we'll never see it again. You know, my wedding photos were taken with the New York City skyline in the background and that includes the twin towers. I'll never look at those the same.

"I was definitely for going to war because whoever did this, we had to push them back," he continued. "So for me, it was personal."

The call from the Marine Corps never came. In the meantime, the effects of 9/11 were taking their toll. The aviation industry was hit pretty hard, and airlines began to lay off personnel. Delta Airlines was no different, and as a recent hire, Roman-Hernandez was among the first let go. He ended up taking a job at the Newport Mall, and when the Marines didn't come looking for him, he went to them.

"I tried to go back into the Marine Corps, but that was going to take too long. By 2002, (the U.S. military) was in Afghanistan, and I wasn't getting anywhere. I made it my resolution in January to get back in," Roman-Hernandez said. "I moved my wife and son into my mother-in-law's place and got them settled so that I could focus on getting back in."

He went to the Military Entrance Processing Station and received a higher score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam than he had the first time around. When things didn't work out with the Marine Corps, he talked with Army recruiters. By April 2003, Roman-Hernandez was back on active duty, this time as a U.S. Army Soldier.

"I came in with the expectation to deploy -- a certainty," Roman-Hernandez said. "I just felt I have to go to do my part."

Although back on active duty, things didn't turn out the way the Soldier expected.

"It took me 10 years to get to Afghanistan. I was supposed to go to Iraq in 2005 as an individual augmentee, but the mission was cancelled a week before I was set to leave," he explained. "Then, I kept getting sent to units that just redeployed or who weren't going."

Despite his frustration, the early warning systems operator kept looking for an opportunity. But, he wondered if he was going to make it downrange after everything he went through to come back on active duty.

"I really wanted to keep the job I had in the Corps as an avionics specialist when I joined the Army, but as prior service, my options were limited. I took what I was offered, because it would get me in and let me do my part," he said.

Ultimately, patience earned Roman-Hernandez an assignment to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade and an opportunity to deploy.

"Now, I'm here and finally doing my part," he said. "Being here and doing my duty in the war, it makes me feel good. I didn't join to be idle. Even if I'm not directly involved, I can facilitate the combat operations."

Roman-Hernandez credits his wife, Irma, for helping him reach his goal.

"My wife is very supportive, and she really understands what this means for me," he said. "She went through my deployment to Kosovo with the Marines, so she knew what to expect. And even though this deployment is a little different, she always supports me, no matter what."

Reflecting on the journey of the last decade, the Soldier admits it's been a long road.

"It's a little frustrating that it's been 10 years since 9/11, and we're still here," he admitted. "We got Osama bin Laden this year, and I feel we made headway in that area. But, Afghanistan still has a ways to go, and the World Trade Center hasn't been rebuilt."

Still, the New Yorker looks ahead to the future.

"I still like what I do, and I'm going to keep going and do my best until it's time for me to retire," he said.

There is only one question that haunts him from time to time.

"What if I didn't stop to smoke and got on the train that got hit going through the tunnel of the World Trade Center?"

And if Roman-Hernandez knew then what he knows now, he said he would not change things.

"I still would have done it," he said. "There's still that sense of duty; I just had to do it. Even after a decade in Afghanistan, even after Iraq, and the downturn of our economy -- all the negative things we can bring up -- I would still have done it. I don't think I would have done anything differently."

Page last updated Thu September 8th, 2011 at 00:00