View Full Version : Concord man who enlisted in Marines on Sept. 11 has no regrets

09-11-05, 06:48 AM
The quest for national security
First wave: Concord man who enlisted in Marines on Sept. 11 has no regrets
- Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

When the terrorist-driven jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Saunders was in a military processing center near San Jose awaiting a final paper shuffle before becoming a Marine.

Within hours of the first plane hitting the North Tower, an Army officer came out and addressed the 100 military recruits who had been watching the chaos unfold on television.

"Obviously, the world has changed, and we know what's going to happen," Saunders remembers the officer saying. "If anyone would like to back out, now is the time."

Then Saunders' recruiter turned to him and a dozen other future Marines and said, "You boys aren't going anywhere. You signed up to do a job, and you're going to see it through."

Sitting in a coffee shop in his native Concord this week, Saunders allowed himself a rare smile at the memory. His just-ended four-year Marine hitch turned out differently from what he signed up for as a 17-year-old high school graduate who liked to party. But his recruiter's call to duty in the hours after the terrorist attacks shaped Saunders' mind-set through the political and cultural tumult of the past four years.

"I think what helped the dozen or so Marines who were there that day was watching the Army and Navy guys back out," Saunders said. It reinforced the fearless image that drew him to the corps.

The terrorist attacks didn't scare him, either. "At that point, I was just thinking about trying to make it through boot camp."

Yet everything changed after that. He left home on a morning when the dominant image was lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke and countries far and near rallying around the United States. He returned as anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan had just left the doorstep of President Bush's vacation ranch, asking him to bring the troops home from an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

Saunders, however, remains as steadfast as that morning four years ago. To him, "the military was always a job."

Saunders came to the military on his own accord. His mother is an office manager at a Concord middle school, his father a commercial banker.

He didn't talk to his recruiter on campus. He sought one out in Pleasant Hill in 2001, shortly after he graduated from Summit Continuation High School in Concord.

For him, the Marines offered structure and the financial stability to be able to move out of his parents' house eventually. Not only had he always admired the way military men carried themselves, but the rush of combat thrilled him. He was romanced, he said, by "the passion of it. The adrenaline rush."

He envisioned being in the military for the next 20 years.

"Academically, school wasn't that engaging to me," Saunders said, his blue eyes looking directly at the person he is addressing. His hair is just beginning to sprout past the half-inch mark, and a helmet strap of stubble grows on a face that's used to being shaved before 5 a.m.

"I knew that I couldn't continue to hang around with some of the losers I was hanging out with, or I'd end up dead or in jail," he said.

His parents reluctantly agreed to his plans, and said their good-byes before a recruiter picked him up at 4 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Days later, after U.S. airports were reopened, he was in San Diego for boot camp.

While there, he received limited news of the war in Afghanistan, just that U.S. forces had met little resistance.

"When you're in boot camp, you get pretty much everything from your D.I. (drill instructor)," Saunders said. "If he tells you a nuclear bomb went off outside, you believe him."

He got through boot camp and assumed his unit would ship out to Japan in early 2003. Family and friends were worried he'd be going to war instead. With gallows humor, he joked that they wouldn't have to worry long; a Marine in a front-line position would last 6 seconds in a firefight.

"You know," Saunders said, "the kind of stuff a 19-year-old kid who has never been in combat says."

In January 2003, the Marines in Saunders' unit learned that their orders had changed: They'd be staying in California for now. Their training would be intensified, and they started cramming every bit of combat preparation into 12-hour workdays.

The officer who broke the news didn't say the word Iraq, "but he didn't have to," Saunders said. "Everybody knew where we'd be going."

The debate over whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction meant little to him and his fellow grunts, Saunders said. While they were preparing for gas attacks, he said, the Marines would joke that "we'd be screwed if (the Iraqi army) had gas anyways, so why are we going through this training?"

Within a month, he was in Kuwait with the 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, just 12 miles from the Iraqi border. He was assigned to be a scout observer for an artillery unit, a job that put him at the front of the front lines.

On the night of March 18, 2003, his unit got the order to get in place for an invasion. Over the next few days, as he rumbled across the Iraqi desert toward a burning oil refinery, artillery "going off like machine guns" around him, he had no second thoughts.

"This is what I signed up for," he said. "I wanted to do something that was cool. That would get my adrenaline going. I had never talked to somebody who had been in combat before. I wanted that experience."

The war was a success, as Saunders saw it during his 4 1/2 months in Iraq. Iraqis lined the streets, waving in support of the U.S. soldiers. Saddam Hussein's army was quickly defeated. Still, he acknowledged, that was before the insurgency took hold.

His 600-person battalion saw two of its members killed during its four months in Iraq. Now, it is different.

"The way I see it, we were sent over there to liberate 22 million people, and we did our job," Saunders said. "What frustrates me is that the Iraqi people have let us down. If the Iraqi people don't want their freedom, you can't blame the U.S. servicemen and women for that."

After leaving Iraq, his unit eventually returned to Camp Pendleton in California for the final year of his hitch. The Marines asked him if he wanted to re-enlist for another four.

"I weighed my options like I would any good business decision," Saunders said. "For me, it had always been like a job. A dirty job. A tough job. In four years, I had done everything I had wanted to do, and more."

At that point, his passion had gone. "The military suits few people. It is a tough job. Anyone who can do it for 20 years is a better man than me," he said.

He declined to re-enlist. His mother, Deb, who became a leader in the troop support group Blue Star Moms, was especially thrilled. He is still eligible to be called up, though, for another four years.

He returned home to Concord on Sept. 3, a Marine corporal with seven military ribbons and awards. And a more mature person, he said.The one-time high school partyer now is considering a career in federal law enforcement. "I still need that adrenaline rush," he said. "But now, I'd like to help Americans instead of Iraqis."

He shrugged at how the nation's opinion has changed toward the war. The Cindy Sheehans of the world have their right to protest, he said, but his opinion hasn't changed.

He doesn't care that no weapons of mass destruction were found. Iraq is a big country, he said, with much territory still to be explored. Same goes for the still-fruitless search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

As for the finding by the federal Sept. 11 commission that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda, which was one of the Bush administration's prime justifications for the invasion, Saunders said, "History will tell if this was a good idea."

Asked if he would have enlisted Sept. 11 had he known how drastically the world would change, Saunders didn't hesitate.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Definitely."