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Coachella Valley military veterans reflect on 9/11 and America’s response

9/11 20-year anniversary: Coachella Valley Remembers

Veterans around the desert and elsewhere are struggling with their thoughts and emotions on this 20th 9/11 anniversary.  So many of their lives were forever changed following the attacks on America. 

KESQ News Channel 3’s Jeff Stahl spoke with several veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan for this story. Two of them, Robi Yucas and Michelle Cherland, are conflicted to this day about their mission and how the United States ultimately pulled out of Afghanistan to end a war.

"Could I have been at home like a regular mom? A regular teacher just living my life doing that?"

michelle cherland

“Could I have been at home like a regular mom?,” said Michelle Cherland U.S. Army Captain, Retired. ”A regular teacher just living my life doing that?’”

Another veteran, Robi Yucas, Chief Warrant Officer 2, Retired said on Afghanistan, “There’s historical precedent that it’s going to get messier before it gets cleaner.”

Yucas has a laptop filled with images of his time flying transport missions over Iraq. “I was that young! So much has changed since then,” Yucas said.

Yucas says he wouldn’t be the same person he is now without his military experiences and the good people he met. He first went to Iraq in June of 2004 flying VIPs around the war zone during Operation Enduring Freedom.

“And back then we were taking a lot of incoming fire. The unofficial nickname for Balad Air Base was ‘Mortaritaville’ because we were always taking indirect fire,” Yucas said.

As recently as last August, Yucas flew 747s loaded with military supplies in and out of Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base.

“So at this point, Bagram Air Base-- even though we’re on approach, it’s closed,” as Yucas described a recent cargo mission into unfriendly skies.

We met him at the Palm Springs Air Museum where a 9/11 flags memorial in the B-17 hangar displays the names of those killed in the attacks and their respective nations. Yucas remembers the 9/11 attacks almost as if they were yesterday.

"I didn't lose any friends and there's still pain. It's unimaginable to me what type of pain there must be for folks who lost people close to them. You can't replace that."

robi yucas

“I didn’t lose any friends and there’s still pain. It’s unimaginable to me what type of pain there must be for folks who lost people close to them. You can’t replace that.”

“Oh see this is the part, where... I mean... That’s my... I mean… That’s my... Just… Uh.” 

Words fail Cherland of Palm Desert when she scrolled through photos of Afghans she once was able to protect from the Taliban, but no more.

“We gave a life to kids I hope they’ll see again. But we were able to be there for people for 20 years.”

"And you see the schools burning down and it just kind of burns down your soul because thats it."

michelle cherland, us army captain, retired

“And that’s what’s terrifying because it’s knowing that it’s gone,” Cherland said. “And you see the schools burning down, and it just kind of burns down your soul because that’s it. That’s what they had and we were there for them, and it feels like we’re not. We let them down.” 

Cherland reenlisted as a U.S. Army reservist two months before the 9-11 attacks, which forever changed this local school teacher’s life and plans. She’d already served active duty since 1991 with tours in Iraq, Kuwait, and Korea.

Home now for good, awarded both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Cherland says she wishes she could do more for the people of Afghanistan. “Working with the Afghanistan people, they were so amazingly awesome and so friendly and so kind.” But Cherland says the Taliban and its threats were very very real.  

She served two tours helping in Iraq as an officer-- then two more in Afghanistan. “When you come home, you’re not the person you were.” 

In 2015, Cherland still excelled at her first love-- teaching--- and was named a California Teacher of the Year at Indio's Carrillo Ranch Elementary School.

Her dedication got national media attention, a surprise appearance on Ellen with Ellen Degeneres netted her a school donation and all-expenses-paid vacation.

"Everybody can comment on, 'This should have happened. This should have happened.' But it didn't."

michelle cherland

Now 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan war’s chaotic end now has her reflecting a lot. “Everybody can comment on, ‘This should have happened. This should have happened.” But it didn’t,” Cherland said.

Yucas adds, “The view from my seat? We’re not going to be separated from the consequences of having to leave Afghanistan. Those are consequences that will continue to unfold.”

Both Cherland and Yucas there say the people they served with are or were the best they’ve ever known. And both say this war’s end has been incredibly hard on their peers.

Help is available right now for veterans struggling emotionally. 

A Veterans Crisis Line is a call away at 1-800-273-8255, then PRESS one.
Or seek help online at www.veteranscrisisline.net

For emergency mental health care, you can also go directly to your local V-A medical center at any time regardless of your discharge status or enrollment in other VA health care.

Online veterans resources are also available at www.maketheconnection.net.

Read and watch more of our exclusive reports: 9/11 20 Years Later: Coachella Valley Remembers. Jeff Stahl talks with a local woman who knew Barbara Keating of Palm Springs who died in the 9/11 attacks and hears from a local emergency planner on what lessons were taken from the attacks.

Jeff Stahl

You can watch Jeff every weekday morning on News Channel 3 in the Morning and News Channel 3 at Noon. Learn more about Jeff here.

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