Army Vet: This Is Why I Signed Up (VIDEO)

| Mon May 2, 2011 12:25 PM EDT

Ret. Sgt. Evan Cole enlisted the Army when he was a 17-year-old Michigan high school student in 2001. He got out of Walter Reed Naval Hospital three months ago. He has a six-inch scar on his right leg to go with injuries to his hand and his head from his tour in Ramadi. He made up his mind to join the army after the watched the Twin Towers fall in his geography class. Cole was one of thousands of revelers who gathered in front of the White House late last night and stayed well into the early hours of the morning to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.

"In the last few years, it seemed like nobody even cared, like what we did over there in Iraq; nobody even talks about it anymore. It is so amazing to see so many people out here wearing red, white, and blue," Cole said. "See, that's what we were over there for—it's these people!"

Jena Passut, a writer at a trade publication in Fairfax, Virginia, was in tears when I talked to her. She had just met a man whose son had died in combat. "I really thought we would get Bin Laden but wouldn't see the body. They would just announce it." Her friend, Erin Dallas, echoed the thoughts of many in attendance: "Part of me thinks it's wrong that we're celebrating that somebody was killed, but we're celebrating because it's a relief."

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Sam McKenzie, a retired Marine who was handing out free "military-style" haircuts in Lafayette Park across from the White House, said he was a conservative who didn't vote for Obama in 2008—but the Osama news changed that. "I think he's shown real leadership, and he deserves four more years," he says. He'd given out five buzz cuts so far, mostly to college students.

The impromptu victory celebration closely resembled your average post-championship bliss, sans the burning couches (the Washington City Paper described the scene as giving "bros a reason to party.") The crowd was diverse, but dominated by students from nearby universities, dozens of whom scaled lampposts and trees; recurring chants of "USA! USA!" and "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye" were punctuated by vuvuzuelas and a steady beat of drums, profanity, and incongruities—at one point, a dozen or so attendees began chanting "Jumbo Slice!" You know, just because. Revelers wore American flag shirts, or American flags as shirts, or just eschewed the shirt concept entirely. There was some anger as well—a few folks thought we should take down Qaddaffi next, or maybe Syria, or maybe both; one man was glad we got that "towelhead."

Among the folks I spoke with, there was a worry that America no longer does the kinds of "big things" President Obama spoke about in his State of the Union Address in January. Bin Laden's continued freedom, more than nine years after the 9/11 attacks, hadn't helped matters. But on Sunday night, those feelings had given way, for a moment at least, to catharsis.

Gwen Harrington drove to the White House from Annapolis when she heard the news; her daughter drove down from Baltimore with some friends. "It think it's about starting a job and then finishing it," she said. She's a conservative, and hardly an Obama booster, but said the mission spoke well of the Commander in Chief. "It was like, we're strongest country in the world, and we can't find that guy?"

"I thought it would happen a lot sooner, maybe a year or two, and then when it didn't happen, I started wondering if it ever would," said Ned Walker, a patent examiner from the District who was a student at Virginia Tech on 9/11. "People needed a little bit of closure, and without getting Bin Laden, it would've been incomplete."

Front-page photo: Chris Gordon/Flickr