Sept. 10 is Michael Sportello’s birthday.
Twenty years ago, Sportello was working in a recruitment office. He had served for 10 years in the military, but took time away for two years to finish his bachelor’s degree.
His coworkers threw him a birthday party a day late, on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We were all standing around talking and they had the cake,” Sportello explained. “Then all of a sudden, the first plane hit. It immediately shocked me to the core because I knew that that wasn't an accident. Then the second plane hit. That devastated me because I knew, with my military background, we were at war. I walked back to my desk and I immediately started packing my desk up. One of the guys that I worked with asked ‘what are you doing?’ I go, ‘I'm done. I have to go back to the military.’ I literally packed my desk up before I went home and went right to the recruiters. I enlisted back in the military that day.”
Sportello said he felt in his heart he had no other choice but to re-enlist.
“My life changed forever,” Sportello said. “I'm always asked that question, 'would I ever do it again?' And I would do it again in a minute.”
Sportello then served for another 10 years.
He helped facilitate sending troops over to Afghanistan and then eventually was deployed to fight in the Iraq War.
“Every day, I was amongst the civilian population over there. It was a life changing experience,” Sportello said. “Seeing the children suffer over there, more than the fighting, that that's what bothered me the most is seeing children starve.”
The war took its toll on Sportello. It took time, but between therapy, his wife and corn hole matches at the Herkimer County Marine League, Sportello says he is on the road to recovery.
“My wife has been a rock star through the sleepless nights,” Sportello said tearfully. “I felt worthless when I retired. I had no sense of purpose. It was a tough dark time. But you know, I'm coming back.”
But now, some of that trauma has resurfaced. Images of U.S. troops being pulled out of Afghanistan reignited some of that pain and frustration.
Many veterans around the country are facing those same feelings, as New York and the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Sportello said the best way people can honor veterans on Saturday is by respecting all that they sacrificed.
“Respect what these soldiers do, did, and are going to do,” Sportello emphasized. “Was it worth it? Absolutely. Absolutely.”
Sportello said he will be heading out to camp with his wife in the woods on Sept. 11, remembering the lives lost, with the person who has been his biggest support.