CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq --
Prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps, every potential Marine sits down with a recruiter and picks out the reasons they want to join from a stack of colorful cards with the words travel, education and discipline, among others that describe most of the reasons someone would make the decision to commit.
For Sgt. Justin D. Toren, a driver and operator for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) commanding general’s personal security detail, his reason was not in the cards. Toren joined during his junior year of high school after the terrorist attacks that occurred Sept. 11, 2001.
“I remember listening to the news on the radio on my way to school. They said we had been attacked but they didn’t have a lot of details,” Toren said, reflecting back to his high school years. “I got to school and we watched the news in class. That’s when I knew I was going to join the Marine Corps.”
Toren, along with three friends from his class, 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, who served in the Marine Corps from 1949 to 1953 and was a Korean War veteran.
Toren started his military career off successfully. At boot camp he was meritoriously promoted to the rank of private first class after breaking the overall record on the rifle range. Toren accredits his excellent marksmanship skills to his country-boy roots where he would take part in common shooting sports.
Immediately following his graduation from the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he received specialized training as a machine gunner, 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.
After setting foot in the desert, Toren was attached to 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, where he assisted with building enemy prisoner of war camps throughout Iraq for two months.
Shortly after, he was reassigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, to be a combat replacement for fallen Marines. His experiences with the unit would later become a big part of Toren’s life.
During his time with Alpha Company, Toren worked his way through the ranks, initially as an ammunition man, then to a gunner, and finally as a team leader.
Although combat engagements were not as common at that time in the war, the living conditions were not exactly what many U.S. service members 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 between the 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,” he continued. “From the inside looking out you can’t explain it, and from the outside looking in, you will never know.”
Sgt. Maj. Robert Young, the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, sergeant major and Toren’s former company first sergeant while with the Alpha Co. Raiders, spoke of Toren’s brave actions that helped 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.”
Toren’s heroic actions during this deployment made him stand out in the eyes of Young, 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.”
It wasn’t long after returning from his first deployment that Toren was packing up for his second.
In May 2004, Toren deployed with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 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. Toren’s 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 Co. 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 Co. Raider, was once approached by one of the students in his class.
“This young Marine, fresh out of boot camp, came up to me asking if I used to be Lance Cpl. Toren,” he said. “Looking at him pretty dumbfounded, he continued saying his company first sergeant in boot camp told him a story about a Lance Cpl. Toren who was with Alpha Raiders.”
After sharing his story with the class, Toren 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 is now on his fourth deployment serving as a member of the PSD for the 2nd MLG (Fwd) commanding general. Toren, along with the 13 other PSD Marines and one sailor, was chosen to guard the general 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.”
Toren’s dedication to the job, however, ensures mission accomplishment, as shown through his actions during past deployments.
“Toren constantly demonstrates ingenuity when dealing with unconventional tasks,” said Sgt. Harry Johnson, a fellow PSD Marine. “Often times you think you are about to be involved with a near impossible project, but with Toren you know that the job will be done.”
Toren was recently combat meritoriously promoted to the rank of sergeant. His success in the Marine Corps has been a never-ending streak since recruit training.
Toren, a former farm hand and bull rider, said he has never once regretted his decision to join the Marine Corps.
"Up until September 11, the miltary wasn't even in the cards for me," he said. "That day changed my life, and I'm glad it did."