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Army Sgt. 1st Class George Kakaletris Of Wheeling Felt Compelled To Re-Enlist After 9/11 Attacks

WHEELING, Ill. (CBS) -- The ripple of the effect of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 continues to stretch far beyond Ground Zero in New York and the horrifying scenes there.

There were so many people who signed up to serve this country after that day, and 20 years later, that decision in its wake changed the course of their lives.

CBS 2's Marie Saavedra learned Wednesday about one soldier's story in Wheeling.

"Every day, I look at pictures of Iraq - the young children and everything - and it amazes me how much time flies," said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class George Kakaletris.

Milestones are how we measure our lives, Kakaletris shared his with us from his two-decade military career – which actually has roots in his life going back almost 40 years.

"I first enlisted in June of '83, actually on my graduation day from high school," he said.

That decision took him across the world helping others. But in 1987, he left the service to further his education.

Fourteen years later, he was teaching a college course when the world changed.

"On that day, when that happened, everybody was horrified about the fact that both planes had hit the towers," he said.

While watching the coverage on campus, Sgt. Kakaletris said he witnessed people celebrating the attack. It was then that 9/11 became his personal milestone - the day he decided to return to the Army.

"That just really, really infuriated me and put a bitter taste in my mouth," Kakaletris said. "I guess after that moment is when I guess you could say I got the itch that I wanted to go back."

In deciding to re-enlist, his hope was to join the newly-waged war in Afghanistan. Instead, in 2004, he got orders for Iraq. Still, his goals on the ground remained the same.

"I tried to show that to the people I was working with, that there's a different idea you may have about Americans or the West," Kakaletris said.

Now, back home in Wheeling, he's proud of that work. But worries what became of the children he met.

It's a worry shared by Afghanistan veterans he knows, who fear their efforts were in vain.

"Those are the issues that actually touch me," Kakaletris said. "Sometimes people will look at you and say, 'Oh, thank you for your service' - which is very appreciated - but sometimes they don't really understand what that service means."

Kakaletris is now months away from his next milestone – retirement, 20 years since the day he felt called, again, to serve.

Sgt. 1st Class Kakaletris' story is just one of many touching stories we'll highlight this Friday. That is when our special, "Remembering 9/11, 20 Years Later," streams on CBSN Chicago.

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