9/11 survivor from Chicago on how Twin Tower attack led him to join Army

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago South Sider Carlos Vega is one of the thousands of stories of survivors called to action from those moments when the United States came under attack 20 years ago. Vega and other Americans found themselves contemplating and then doing something they never imagined: they joined the military.

"Hypnotizing, you just couldn't stop looking at the buildings it was just so unbelievable what was happening," Vega said.

Carlos Vega was late for work on Sept. 11, 2001. With headphones on to drown out the typically noisy Lower Manhattan, he emerged from his train stop realizing something was wrong.

"I remember how quiet it was for New York. Just really silent except for sirens," he recalled. "I remember seeing like papers falling in the sky, sorta like a tickertape parade."

It wasn't until he looked up that he realized the severity of what was happening.

"I turned my head and this is when I saw the twin towers on fire," he said.

The McKinley Park native and White Sox fan was working for a corporate investment firm at the time located in Building 5 at the World Trade Center. He still has a few items from that day; his work key card and a photo book he bought on the street. His memories are still vivid.

"I remember debris falling and later I kinda realized that some of that were people. It was horrible," Vega said.

In those terrifying moments, watching first responders stirred something in him.

"Almost feeling like maybe I can do something to help kinda thing," he said. "The firemen the policemen you known the federal agents running towards the building it was just inspiring kind of thing."

Vega joined the U.S. Army Reserves as a 34-year-old E1 Private, barely making the maximum age cut off. He wasn't alone. According to the USO, during the following year, Sept. 11 inspired more than 250,000 Americans to take military active duty and reserve positions.

Vega said his father's unwavering work ethic and his mother's compassion were powerful influences on his own life choices but he never contemplated joining the military until that day.

"I was an investment banker and all I cared about was making money and, uh, quite selfish I guess, but Sept. 11 definitely changed me," he said.

The pictures of those who were missing from the towers, posted near the site of the massive destruction, haunted Vega and also reinforced his decision to take action.

"On the flight there I just kept thinking about 9/11 and thinking about the missing persons faces and how diverse it was, and I remember looking up and seeing the soldiers I was serving with mirror those images." Vega said, "It made me feel like I'm doing the right thing. It solidified my purpose there."

He served three tours in Iraq but still yearns to wear the uniform and now has a new mission as a board member at the non-profit Chicago Veterans. The organization offers support to all Veterans with an emphasis on building a positive social support system to take control of their transition throughout life.

"Joining the military and serving was probably the worst thing I ever did and the best thing I ever did at the same time," said Vega. "I've been there I clawed my way out and if I can help another veteran get through that when they come back from a combat zone that's my mission and I'm going to stick to it and I'm not going to dwell on what I can't change."

For two decades Vega has been private about his 9/11 experience but is now sharing to help others who might still be struggling. He's also on tap to speak at Chicago's 9/11 memorial remembrance Saturday at Daley Plaza.
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