Watch CBSN Live

For Many, 9/11 A Call To Arms

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 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 even telling his wife, 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," McAlister remembers.

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, like Williams, 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 America 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," says 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 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," 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 like 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 reserves, Harlan 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 last May 14.

Thirty-year-old Bob Roberts was a plumber who fancied boating and fishing in Oregon's Yaquina Bay. But after the attacks, he told friends he'd found his calling and enlisted in the Marines. He was killed May 17 by hostile fire.

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.

Following 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 said, "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 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 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.

The knock. The chaplain at the door. The words: "I'm sorry to inform you ..." The images haunt Darlene Geurin now, along with the tragic day that started it all.

"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 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 - rooted in part on assertions that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist group behind the attacks on New York and Washington. The commission that investigated the plot has since concluded there was no collaborative relationship between the former Iraqi dictator and al-Qaida.

"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."'

Some find the deaths harder to justify.

"My nephew lost his life for nothing," says Williams' uncle, Larry McAlister. "I'm patriotic, too, but it's got to be for the real deal. For him, it didn't matter. If it was connected to 9/11 in any way, form or fashion, it felt like you were doing the right thing."

In April 2003, 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 plans to buy land in North Carolina where he and his cousins' families would retire, to purchase a boat and attend a summer motorcycle rally.

He left behind his wife of eight years, his two daughters and two stepdaughters, and his three grandbabies.

When he returned home briefly that summer for his grandmother's funeral, a comrade was killed in action. 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 caused by 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."

Williams was killed last Oct. 17, driving a Humvee back to camp after patrol duty south of Baghdad. He wasn't supposed to be in the vehicle that day; he had taken a friend's place. A roadside bomb exploded, and a piece of shrapnel sliced his aorta. Hundreds of Iraqis gathered around as Williams lay dead, his fellow soldier, Joe Wendel, recalls. They were cheering.

"They got the wrong guy," says Wendel. "He's my hero."

Leon has another word for her friend: A gift.

This Sept. 11, she plans to gather Williams' colleagues for a birthday lunch in his honor. "Michael deserves it," she says.

"That was a defining moment in our history, but most of us are not charged with doing something in our personal lives that will make it never happen again," says Leon. "Michael knew he was charged with that duty. He could not just sit there.

"The whole world should cry over losing people like Michael."