Face of Defense: Marine Recalls 9/11 Enlistment Decision
By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Melissa A. Latty
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq, Sept. 9, 2009 Potential Marines usually sit with a recruiter and pick out the reasons they want to join from a stack of colorful cards featuring the words “travel,” “education” and “discipline,” among others, that describe most of the reasons someone would decide to commit.
Marine Corps Sgt. Justin D. Toren waits for the departure of a convoy to Habbaniyah Tourist Village, Iraq, Aug. 11, 2009. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Richard McCumber
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But for Marine Corps Sgt. Justin D. Toren, a driver and operator for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group commanding general’s personal security detail, his reason was not in the cards. Toren joined during his junior year of high school after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I remember listening to the news on the radio on my way to school,” he recalled. “They said we had been attacked, but they didn’t have a lot of details. I got to school, and we watched the news in class. That’s when I knew I was going to join the Marine Corps.”
Along with three classmates, Toren enlisted shortly after the tragedy occurred.
Toren joined the Corps to become an infantryman; he said he wanted to be a machine gunner like his great uncle, a Korean War veteran who served in the Marine Corps from 1949 to 1953. At boot camp, he was meritoriously promoted to private first class after breaking the overall record on the rifle range. The sergeant credits his marksmanship skills to his country-boy roots, having grown up taking part in shooting sports.
After machine gunner training, Toren was sent to Movement Company 4, 1st Marine Division. Four days after reporting to the unit in January 2003, he deployed to Iraq for the first time, attached to the 2nd Marine Division’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, helping to build prisoner-of-war camps throughout Iraq for two months.
He soon was reassigned to the 1st Marine Division’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, to be a combat replacement for fallen Marines. Toren’s experiences with the unit later would become a big part of his life.
During his time with Alpha Company, Toren worked his way through the ranks, initially as an ammunition man, then as a gunner, and finally as a team leader. Although combat engagements were not as common at that time in the war, he said, the living conditions were not exactly what many U.S. servicemembers are accustomed to today.
“It was rough living then; nothing like we have it now,” he said. “We didn’t have a base to come back to. We would take over an area that seemed secure, and that’s where we would sleep.”
After 11 long months of being deployed, a special relationship had formed among the company’s Marines.
“When I was first assigned to the company, we were known as just Alpha Company,” Toren said. “After the invasion we had a name -- we were known as the Alpha Company Raiders. We shared a bond unlike anything else. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it, and from the outside looking in, you will never know.”
Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Robert Young, sergeant major for the 2nd Marine Division’s 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, was Toren’s company first sergeant with the Alpha Company Raiders. He said Toren’s bravery helped to save the lives of his comrades.
“While serving as a gunner for Company A, Toren did something that I have never seen before,” Young said. “While receiving enemy fire, grenades were being thrown to the roof of the building where Toren and other fellow gunners had set up an over watch position.
“He just kept throwing them back and firing at the enemy,” Young continued. “Realizing the enemy was standing directly below him and outside of his field of fire, Toren inverted his M-240G medium machine gun, annihilating the enemy and securing the section’s location.”
His heroic actions during this deployment made Toren stand out in Young’s eyes, as well as those of his peers.
“Toren is the machine gunner of machine gunners that I have ever known,” Young said. “He is probably one of the toughest Marines I have ever encountered, and I would put him in my battalion any day.”
Not long after returning from his first deployment to Iraq, Toren was packing up for his second. In May 2004, he deployed with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He participated in Operation Danger Fortitude -- an operation designed to establish and occupy Forward Operating Base Duke -- and Operation Ripper Sweep, an operation intended to clear and secure the roads leading into the city of Fallujah.
“My second deployment was definitely more eventful than my first,” Toren said. His actions during his second deployment earned him a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device.
He deployed once more with the Alpha Company Raiders before reporting to the 2nd Marine Logistics Group to be a Battle Skills Training School instructor, where he shared his knowledge with young Marines preparing for deployment.
Toren, who has a unit tattoo on his left forearm that reflects his pride of being an Alpha Company Raider, said he once was approached by one of the students, who asked him a peculiar question.
“This young Marine, fresh out of boot camp, came up to me asking if I used to be Lance Corporal Toren,” he said. “[I was] looking at him pretty dumbfounded, [and] he continued saying his company first sergeant in boot camp told him a story about a Lance Corporal Toren who was with Alpha Raiders.”
After sharing his story with the class, Toren said, he noticed the Marines hung on to his every word as he finished the day’s lesson.
“Anything I said, and everything I taught that day, I guarantee they will never forget it,” he said.
The sergeant now is on his fourth deployment. Along with the 13 other Marines and one sailor on the general’s security detail, he was chosen for the duty because of his previous combat experience.
“Learning the job of being personal security was pretty difficult,” Toren said. “After six years of being a grunt, your instinct is to push forward and gain ground in any combat situation. Now, it’s all about one guy. You do whatever it takes to ensure his safety, and then you get away from the threat. It’s not an easy mission.”
Another member of the security detail said Toren’s dedication to the job ensures mission accomplishment, as shown through his actions during past deployments.
“Toren constantly demonstrates ingenuity when dealing with unconventional tasks,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Harry Johnson. “Oftentimes you think you are about to be involved with a near impossible project, but with Toren you know that the job will be done.”
His recent combat meritorious promotion to sergeant is Toren’s latest mark of success in a Marine Corps career that has been a never-ending streak of successes since recruit training.
The former farmhand and bull rider said he never has regretted his decision to join the Marine Corps.
"Up until Sept. 11,” he said, “the military wasn't even in the cards for me. That day changed my life, and I'm glad it did."
(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Melissa A. Latty serves with Combat Logistics Regiment 27.)