Daniel and Zack McNew were in high school on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and passengers took down Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania to avert another attack on American soil. That day would shift the course of their lives as the two brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Iraq.
âI joined because of 9-11. I was in high school and was watching the war develop. I just felt like I was called to it,â Daniel said.
âWe both knew we were going to join. When he did it, it just solidified it for me,â Zack said.
The Smyth County natives were a year apart in age with Daniel being older. Daniel enlisted on Aug. 31, 2004 and served just over four years. He recently passed the 10-year anniversary of his service. He returned to the United States in October of 2007 and was honorably discharged the next October.
Daniel deployed to Iraq in July of 2006. He had just celebrated his 20th birthday. He would spend 15 months in Iraq.
âBaghdad was a very beautiful place, the parts of it that hadnât been destroyed,â he said, adding that he was in the 25th Infantry Division, where he served as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief.
âIt was a really cool job. I had almost 800 combat flight hours as a door gunner in Iraq. The war had just started when I joined. A year after I went in, I was deployed,â he said, pointing out that he was trained initially as a helicopter mechanic. Once he gained experience in the maintenance company, he moved to the flight company just before his deployment.
Zack was in the 18th Airborne Corps. He enlisted on July 25, 2005 and spent six-and-a-half years in, deploying to Iraq the first time as an MP (military police) and the second time as a dog handler. Zack explained that he re-enlisted to be a dog handler. His dog was trained for scouting work as a patrol dog and to detect explosive devices or IEDs.
âI went through a lot of stuff with that dog. Itâs a different kind of bond than with a dog you see when you come home from work. I was the dogâs first handler and had to help the dog adjust when he was reassigned to a new handler,â Zack said, adding that he and the dog were together all the time. A military dog generally serves 10-12 years and may have up to three handlers during his time in the military, Zack said.
Zack was honorably discharged on Nov. 22, 2011.
Both Zack and Daniel were stationed in Iraq at the same time and occasionally ran into each other there.
Having a brother in the midst of the fighting was hard on the pair. Daniel was privy to communications regarding ground attacks because his helicopter frequently transported military dignitaries.
âWhen I was in the air, I was tied into all communications, what was going on on the ground. I would hear that an IED went off, three KIA [killed in action], and I would wonder if it was Zack,â Daniel said.
âI was on the ground and I knew they liked to shoot at helicopters. We both took the most dangerous path we could have. Injuries did happen, but we did all we could with armor on the truck to mitigate the danger,â Zack said.
âBut it all worked out for us,â Daniel added, pointing out that their military experience helped them to grow up and grow closer.
âThe war changed us. Joining the military, going to a combat zone, you grow up,â Daniel said.
âMy entire becoming an adult happened in the military. You get super close with people while you are in and they become your family,â Zack said.
Once the brothers left the military, they realized the lingering effects of combat. Both are dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have taken advantage of the services provided by the Veterans Administration and the support of other combat veterans. Both are lifetime members of the VFW.
âI sought help at the VA for PTSD. If not for that help, I would still struggle with it. You go through a period of self destruction. You seek to find the adrenaline rush you had over there. Itâs a fast tempo and you didnât think about what might happen over there, but when you come home, you think about it and try to clear your head,â Daniel said.
âYou go through a phase of learning how to be a normal person again,â Zack added.
Since his discharge, Daniel has worked a variety of jobs, including making legal moonshine with Appalachian Spirits and helping to build Hungry Mother Adventureâs zipline. He enjoys being outside, playing guitar and singing and running around in his Jeep.
Zack has spent most of the seven years he has been out working in sales. He also worked at the zipline and has a dog training business. He likes working with dogs and participating in mud runs and has done 15 races.
âDaniel and I were very close before we joined the military. Having been in has brought us together more than anything else in life. Heâs my best friend,â Zack said.