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SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — When the plane crashed in the empty field north of town, the schools let out early. Katlin Rodriguez, 11 at the time, waited in a cafeteria full of crying and shocked classmates for her mother and stepfather to come and take her home. When they showed up, they had brought along a family friend. “Don’t worry,” said the friend, a teenager who announced he had just enlisted. “We’re going to get them. We’re going to get the ones who did this.”
On a muggy Friday morning 20 years later, Ms. Rodriguez, now the wife of a Marine and the mother of a 6-year-old girl, was planting American flags in a small field not far from where Flight 93 went down outside Shanksville, Pa. About a dozen people were with her, each flag they planted representing one of 7,049 U.S. service members who had died in the wars that were waged since that late summer morning in 2001.
“A lot of the kids I went to school with, they enlisted,” Ms. Rodriguez said, looking out across the field. “It made a lot of us feel more connected to the larger world.”
By the time that the plane went down in Pennsylvania, the larger world was already reeling. The streets of downtown Manhattan were filled with dust clouds and terror, as the South Tower of the World Trade Center had just collapsed. In Washington, federal officials and city residents were bracing for more attacks as flames poured out of the western side of the Pentagon. People across the country sat in shock in front of their televisions, waiting to hear what institution might be hit next.
Unlike the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, Somerset County, Pa., was not a target on Sept. 11, only a place that Flight 93 was passing over on the way to the terrorists’ grim objective in Washington. People did not live in Stoystown or Friedens or Shanksville, a tiny town without a traffic light, because they wanted to be near the levers of global power.
But when the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 attempted to seize control from their hijackers and the plane went plummeting into the Pennsylvania countryside, Shanksville suddenly became a battlefield in an international conflict. Once unthinkable new duties were now thrust upon the Fire Department, the county coroner, the nearby state troopers, the local historical society, the neighbors living near the crash site and, all across the country but here especially, the young people who suddenly found themselves coming of age in a time of war.
“He was angry,” Kathy Hause-Walker said of her son, Brian, who grew up in Stoystown, a little village a few miles from Shanksville. “It was like being violated.” A 22-year-old father of two in September 2001, he enlisted in the Air Force that December. He was not alone.
In the first six years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to research cited in a 2016 article in The University of Memphis Law Review, soldiers from Somerset County were wounded in action at a rate higher than 97 percent of U.S. counties.
Staff Sgt. Brian Hause was sent to Iraq in 2008, said Ms. Hause-Walker, who was gathering a bundle of flags to plant that Friday…