- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

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 the chicken wings and pizza and cake, and so they ate them that night of September 11, 2001 — while on their big-screen television in Buffalo, N.Y., they saw planes crashing and towers collapsing.

Weeks later, without even telling his wife, Spc. Williams re-enlisted in the Army National Guard. It was his duty, he explained to those who tried to change his mind, like his uncle, Larry McAlister, who worried there might be a war and warned: “You could lose your life.”

“He just kind of smiled and didn’t say too much then,” Mr. McAlister remembers.

Spc. 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 September 11 attacks and later died in the desert of Iraq.

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. They felt 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,” says Spc. Williams’ 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 buildings 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,” he says. “I admire him for standing up.”

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

Men such as James Harlan, a 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 Reserve duty, Mr. Harlan signed back up after September 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 last 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 he had found his calling and enlisted in the Marines. He was killed May 17.

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 a roadblock.

After Pfc. Rincon’s death, Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot on 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,” she wrote, “whenever and wherever I see an American flag flying.”

Cory Geurin was just starting his senior year in high school when, only a week after September 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 sitting in their living room.

“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 says. “And he did.”

Because Cory was just 17, his parents had to grant permission for him to enlist. In November 2001, on a school day, 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 September 11 was two months after he died. I was at work that day, and the feelings I had … I had to leave,” she recalls. “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.”

What the Geurin family doesn’t question is President Bush’s rationale for going to war.

“People say, ‘Do you have regrets that your son went?’ No, because I know in my heart my son had no regrets,” says Cory’s father, Dennis Geurin. “We fight because of one reason: We believe we’re doing the right thing at the time for our country. Cory signed up to defend this country. He didn’t say, ‘I’m only going to fight the war I believe in.’”

In April 2003, Spc. Williams left for Iraq with the National Guard’s 105th Military Police Company. He left behind his job as an investigator at the New York Department of Correctional Services Inspector General’s Office. He left behind his wife of eight years, his two daughters and two stepdaughters, and his three grandchildren. When he returned home briefly that summer for his grandmother’s funeral, a comrade was killed in action. Spc. Williams would later tell his buddies he felt guilty he hadn’t been there. Once he was back in Iraq, he wrote a letter to his co-workers, thanking them for taking up the slack in his absence.

“He’s the one standing at death’s door, and he would write and worry about us and our families and things we were going through,” says his boss and close friend, Barbara Leon. “That was Michael.”

Spc. Williams was killed Oct. 17, driving a Humvee back to camp after patrol duty south of Baghdad. A roadside bomb exploded, and a piece of shrapnel sliced his aorta. Hundreds of Iraqis gathered around as Spc. Williams lay dead, his fellow soldier, Joe Wendel, recalls. They were cheering.

“They got the wrong guy,” his comrade says. “He’s my hero.”

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