Pfc. L.J. McElravy was just starting a training exercise with the United States Army in Fort Polk, Louisiana, when the news broke that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
“I remember walking from the barracks to the communication center,” he said. “And on my way walking there, someone, and I don’t even remember if I knew them or not, told me there’d been an attack in New York. And I was just confused. By the time I got to the communication center, not much more was known. I got there just as the second plane was crashing into the other tower.”
Like the rest of the nation, the base personnel paused what they were doing and watched the tragedy unfold on television.
“We were getting our information at that point, just like everyone else, watching the news,” McElravy said. “There wasn’t a lot of clarity as to what was going on.”
McElravy, who specialized in telecommunications, was stationed in a communications center and remembers an entire day of uncertainty. But he and his fellow soldiers around him knew everything had changed.
“When I reflect back, there’s just so much confusion as to how would we provide support on this? Are we going to be moving to invade a country,” he said. “There was no clear next step, which seemed odd. You can imagine, we’re all people in the military who are just kind of thinking through what does this mean for us?
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen next or what our response would be, but when there was an attack on the United States, which hadn’t happened in a very long time, it felt like a whole new world.”
At the time, McElravy was preparing for a deployment in Kosovo, where the military was carrying out peacekeeping missions. He went to Kosovo as planned for six months until the middle of 2002. When he returned, he began preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, but that shifted to Iraq, where he was deployed from 2003 to 2004.
“When I joined the military the year before, the expectation of deployment was small in comparison to what’s happened in the 20 years since,” he said.
Multiple deployments became the new normal for all branches of the military, McElravy said,
“It became part of the experience of serving in the military,” he said. “If you had a four-year enlistment, you’d likely be deployed twice, so it just completely changed. People were getting deployed at a rate that was so much faster than we had in the previous generation of soldiers.”
Personally, the attacks of 9/11 brought new focus for McElravy.
“For me, part of why I joined the military was because I wanted to serve and I wanted to meaningfully serve,” he said. “The attacks gave another purpose to serving. For me, it was the hope that we could prevent anything like that from ever happening again.”
While deployed in Iraq, McElravy took the first steps to furthering his career through education. On base, over satellite internet, he applied for admission to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“My enlistment was up on Sept. 11, 2004, but I stayed until the end of my deployment,” McElravy said. “When I joined the military I thought it could be a career and I had a commander in Iraq, who I had a conversation with about whether to stay or not, and he said ‘you’ve already made a sacrifice to the country that very few other Americans have made,’ and if I was interested in going to school, he wanted to encourage me to do that because I could always come back.”
He officially discharged in April 2005, and began classes at Nebraska in fall 2005 with biochemistry and French majors, thinking he would eventually pursue medical school.
But the world had changed, and McElravy had, too.
“I graduated in December 2008, and I couldn’t start medical school right away,” he said. “I was offered an assistantship where I could start work on my master’s and that sounded good.
“I took a class in leadership theory and I realized this is what I’m really interested in. I would say I consistently think about my experience as a supervisor and a leader in the military. Also, the experience I had with other leaders in the military is a reference point for my interest in studying leadership.”
While pursuing his degree, McElravy also began working with The Mission Continues, a veteran’s organization that emphasizes community leadership and service.
“Within that program, I was able to work with NHRI Leadership Mentoring to do leadership development with youth across the state,” he said. “As an organization, [Mission Continues] recognizes that post-9/11 veterans are this cohort of soldiers who had this shared experience and they have a lot to offer their communities. Its focus is finding ways to meaningfully engage them in their communities.”
McElravy eventually got both a masters and doctorate in leadership studies, and has forged a career in developing leaders at Nebraska. He now serves as associate professor in Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication, and associate dean for professional development in Graduate Studies.
As he reflects back, McElravy said his time in the military still influences how he approaches the students and communities he works with on a daily basis, and that everyone can play a role in making our communities, and world, a better place.
“As a nation we learned we’re not invincible — that there is the potential for terrorism to hit the United States,” McElravy said. “I would say it still influences how I think about my work in terms of leadership, and community leadership, specifically. How do we create places where people can be engaged to proactively impact their communities for improvement?
“In my mind, 9/11 is clearly what happens when people feel disenfranchised by the global community, and the blame was placed on the United States. That’s at the macro level, but at the micro level, I think some of the same things happen in our communities, where people are unable to be included, which has a negative impact on those individuals and their communities.”