$n$ Two Walla Walla servicemen in Afghanistan share 9/11 memories


Ten years ago today as hijacked jetliners tore into the World Trade Center, Christopher Johnson was running in Idaho and Russell Wolfkiel was in Japan almost ready for bed.

Today, both are in Afghanistan fighting the war on terror.

Apart from a dedication to serve their country, the two have one other thing in common. They are both from Walla Walla.

How they wound up sharing a room as part of a NATO force at work to rebuild the Afghan army and police is a story that traces back many years.

The Walla Walla connection starts with their families. For Wolfkiel, his parents had lived in Walla Walla before he was born. "My father worked for the Army Corps of Engineers so we moved around a lot and we also lived in Walla Walla from 1978 to 1981," he said, but then in 1984 they returned to stay.

Wolfkiel went on to graduate from Walla Walla High School, then joined the U.S. Navy. After several prior assignments, he was transferred to Yokosuka, Japan, and was living there on that fateful day in 2001.

Johnson's family moved to Walla Walla in 1989 when his father, who worked for the J.C. Penney Company, came to help open the store at the Blue Mountain Mall. They moved to Shelton, Wash., in 1994, but returned in 1998 after his father finished his studies to become a pastor and was offered a job at the Nazarene Church in Walla Walla.

Johnson, too, went on to graduate from Wa-Hi in the summer of 2000. The next stop was the Naval Reserve Officer Training program at the University of Idaho, where he was out running with fellow ROTC members on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

During the run, he recalled, "someone told us an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center and I thought to myself ‘Well, that's kind of crazy.'"

But when they returned to the ROTC center, their gunnery sergeant told them about what was happening. Walking into the TV room, he and his mates saw the World Trade Center towers on fire "and then we saw the second plane hit.

"And I thought, ‘This is it, we're going to war,'" Johnson said.

In Japan, it was about 10:30 p.m. local time and Wolfkiel was watching TV and thinking about going to bed when he saw the news flash.

"Like Chris, I first thought this was a horrible accident," he said in a phone interview from Afghanistan last week. "I didn't immediately think of terrorism," he said when he saw the images being flashed on the screen. "I was amazed. It was a feeling of shock."

He went upstairs and woke up his wife. As they watched the events unfold, Wolfkiel remembers her asking if he thought there were people on board the aircraft.

"I said, ‘No, no. They must have stolen the planes,'" he recalled. The idea that terrorists would smash planes loaded with innocent passengers into a building was unthinkable.

"It was beyond what I could comprehend at that time," Wolfkiel said.

Ten years later, Wolfkiel and Johnson said their perspectives are far different.

"I think everyone's perspective on (terrorism) has changed, Wolfkiel said. "I couldn't believe there were people in the world who could do that. We now know the depths that terrorists will go. It has strengthened my resolve."

Johnson expressed a similar view. "How could someone conceive of using a jetliner for that purpose? As we've come to understand there is no limit to which terrorists will go. They will try everything they can. All it does is strengthen my resolve to fight these people so we can have not only a stronger U.S., but a more peaceful world. I don't want my children to ever go through something like that."

When asked if they were surprised to find themselves in Afghanistan on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Johnson said no.

"I knew I would be here," he said. He also said he accepted that the war "was going to be a long haul."

Afghanistan used to be a "pretty solid state," Johnson said, and rebuilding the country is going to take a long time. "These people have been fighting 30 years (against the Taliban), so I did foresee us being here for quite a while."

One major problem NATO forces must contend with in Afghanistan is illiteracy, they said. Under Taliban rule, the educational system was destroyed and that resulted in an entire generation who cannot read, write or do simple math.

People from developed nations "just can't comprehend an entire nation as illiterate," Wolfkiel said. "It is such a deep-rooted problem."

"And that's the big push with NATO forces," Johnson said. "Simply to try and get adults up to reading and calculating at an eighth-grade level. If you can do that, you're making progress."

Both Wolfkiel and Johnson said that one high point of their tour was hearing that U.S. Navy Seals had found and killed Osama bin Laden. "It was one of those moments when we asked ‘Is this happening?'" Johnson said.

But what was especially moving was the reaction of ordinary citizens, he said. "It was amazing to me to see the reaction of the Afghans. To a man everybody said, ‘This is a good day for Afghanistan.'"

"That was a day nothing could go wrong. They could have served slop on a shingle for mess and everyone would have enjoyed it," Wolfkiel added with a laugh.

As of today, Johnson and Wolfkiel have a relatively short time left in their tours. Wolfkiel said he has two months to go before returning San Diego, where he is assigned as the assistant officer in charge at Fleet Combat Camera Group. Johnson said he has 10 days before leaving Afghanistan to return to the United States. It will then be another three weeks before he returns to Walla Walla, after which "my wife and I are going to Disney World."

And it was the Disney World trip that led to one of the biggest surprises.

That came several months into their Afghanistan tour when Wolfkiel came into their room and heard Johnson talking long-distance to his wife about getting airplane tickets from Walla Walla to Disney World.

"We were talking about the plane tickets and Russ was taking off his boots when heard me asking about getting a flight connection out of Walla Walla," Johnson recalled. "And Russ said ‘What? Did you say Walla Walla!?' And I looked back at (Wolfkeil's) luggage tag and saw the Walla Walla destination tag!"

"I mean, for three months he's been sleeping in the rack above me and we didn't know we were both from Walla Walla!"


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