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Reflecting on Those Who Put Lives on Line After 9/11

The whole nation felt the pain of that day, but some felt a need to act and joined the military. Some of those recruits didn't return.

September 05, 2004|Pauline Arrillaga | Associated Press Writer

The day the horror of terrorism struck home was supposed to be a celebration for Michael Williams: It was his 44th birthday.

His wife had chicken wings and pizza and cake, and so they ate them that night of Sept. 11, 2001 -- while on their big-screen television they saw planes crashing and towers tumbling and their fellow citizens tormented by grief.

From their little corner of Buffalo, N.Y., they cried with a nation. "I can't believe this happened on my birthday," Williams would say. And he couldn't believe it happened in his beloved country.

Weeks later, without telling his wife, Williams reenlisted in the Army National Guard. It was his duty, he said to those who tried to change his mind, like his uncle, Larry McAlister, who worried that there might be a war and warned: "You could lose your life."

"He just kind of smiled and didn't say too much then," McAlister recalled.

Williams did go to war. And he didn't come back. He is one of dozens of soldiers who were inspired to join the military after the Sept. 11 attacks and later died in the deserts of Iraq.

Many didn't know any of the terrorists' victims. It didn't matter.

Some lived far from the devastation, in other states, on the opposite coast. They didn't stand in the rubble or breathe the lingering scent of death. That didn't matter, either.

Whether they were in high school or jobs far removed from the military, whether they were citizens or immigrants, married or single, had five children or none, it simply didn't matter.

All of the United States felt the pain of that day, but something else filled their souls: A need to act. A responsibility to serve.

"Mike joined because of a calling in him, and he didn't mind putting his life on the line for it," said his cousin, James Robbins. "It was not the issue of money. It was not the issue of a subsidized income. He had nothing to gain. When the building came down, that destroyed him inside. To see the people jumping out the windows, he couldn't take it. I've grown to admire him even more in his death. I admire him for standing up."

A review of U.S. casualties in Iraq found at least two dozen other soldiers bound by the same calling.

Men like James Harlan, father of five with a fiancee and a job in the streets department in Owensboro, Ky. At 44, after two decades in the military and reserves, he signed back up after Sept. 11. He was in his second tour in Iraq with the Army Reserve's 660th Transportation Company when a suicide bomber attacked his fuel convoy May 14.

Bob Roberts, 30, was a plumber who fancied boating and fishing in Oregon's Yaquina Bay. But after the attacks, he told friends that he'd found his calling and enlisted in the Marines. He was killed May 17 by hostile fire in Iraq's Al Anbar province.

Colombian-born Diego Rincon wasn't even a U.S. citizen when anger over the assault on his adopted nation spurred him to join the Army. The 19-year-old from Conyers, Ga., died March 29, 2003, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive at an Army checkpoint north of Najaf.

After Rincon's death, Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon, wrote to his family to express her gratitude to "a brave heart, a dedicated soldier and a true American Patriot. I will think of him whenever and wherever I see an American flag flying."

Cory Geurin was starting his senior year in high school when, a week after Sept. 11, he told his mother: "They're messin' with my generation, and I'm not gonna let it happen. I want to join the Marines."

Darlene Geurin had detected a change in her only son ever since the morning she roused him from bed to watch reports of the attacks. In the days that followed, her son and his friends would congregate at their house in Santee, Calif. -- but instead of watching MTV, they turned on the news. A few weeks later, a recruiter was there.

"He grew up after 9/11. He went from a teenager who was worried about who his next date was and wrestling matches to somebody who wanted to do something about the way the world was," Darlene Geurin said. "And he did."

Because Cory was just 17, his parents had to give permission for him to enlist. In November 2001, he took the oath. A month after his high school graduation, on July 15, 2002, the surfer boy who was voted most valuable player of the wrestling team went off to boot camp.

He died exactly one year later, after falling 60 feet from the roof of an Iraqi palace he was guarding.

"Last Sept. 11 was two months after he died. I was at work that day, and the feelings I had ... I had to leave," she recalled. "It just brought it all back: This is why my son died. "I always wonder, if it hadn't happened -- if 9/11 hadn't happened -- would he have gone to college? Would he still be alive? It's a very hard day for us.

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