Josue Guerrero was sitting in class at Los Angeles Valley College when the World Trade Center in New York City was hit by the largest terrorist attack on America.
On that tragic day, the Marine Corps reservist received a call to report for active duty. He eventually would be sent to the battlefields in the Middle East.
For Guerrero, who was 23 years old, and also a Mexican immigrant who wanted to serve his adopted country the action he saw was traumatic. And like many vets, he came back to the United States much differently than he left. He had sustained serious injuries and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But he has recovered and turned his life around, And today, the Iraq War veteran is providing a different service, working as a platoon leader for the Los Angeles chapter of The Mission Continues. The nonprofit organization has launched “Beyond 9/11: Operation Enduring Service,” a campaign marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and kicking off the next 20 years of a veteran-led service in our country.
Like Guerrero, thousands will be giving back nationwide through “Operation Enduring Service.”
“In helping low-income communities, we veterans have found a new mission and purpose in life,” Guerrero said
Getting there was a long, tortuous road for the 44-year-old North Hollywood resident.
Guerrero was still a child when he immigrated from the Mexican city of Morelia, in the western state of Michoacan on the Pacific Coast. Drug cartel violence forced his parents, a doctor and a nurse, to bring their family to the United States.
Speaking Spanish and limited English, and the color of his skin, brought him harassment and bullying in elementary school and junior high school while growing up in Pacoima, said Guerrero (who also graduated from Sylmar High School).
That rejection led him to enlist in the US Marine Corps Reserve, hoping to be respected as a worthy American. Besides, he says, it was a Marine who once helped him get up after being beaten by schoolmates.
Nine months after joining the reserves, the Sept. 11 attacks happened.
“A teacher came into class screaming,” Guerrero recalled. “We turned on a TV we had in the classroom, and saw the first tower burning. Then we saw the second plane hit the other tower.
“It was surreal. We could not believe what had happened.”
Within the hour, Guerrero’s mobile phone rang. “It was my Marine commander telling me to get ready,” he said.
A week later, Guerrero reported to the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Base in Orange County where he and others received intelligence warnings of a potential terrorist attack in Los Angeles. “I was placed on high alert and was told to be ready to be deployed as part of a quick reaction force if needed,” he said.
No attack materialized. And six months later, Guerrero reported to Camp Pendleton in North San Diego County and trained with the Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment.
To prepare for warfare in the deserts of the Middle East, Guerrero trained for about a year in Death Valley and Twentynine Palms, missing deployment to Afghanistan in October of 2001.
In February of 2003, Guerrero was among the first American soldiers to invade Iraq. “We were part of that original ‘Shock and Awe,’” he said, referring to the overwhelming show of American military might.
Guerrero says with pride he was part of the 1st Marine Division that entered Baghdad that took over the United Nations Building being held by loyalists to President Saddam Hussein. He was also among the Marines who entered Hussein’s Palace in the city of Tikrit, where he also helped bring down the dictatorial leader’s statues.
During his deployment, Guerrero sustained injuries to his back and leg, and eventually was medically discharged.
The change in his military status hit hard.
“I wanted to go back, to be part of my unit,” Guerrero said. “I really became very depressed because I felt like I was useless.”
During that dark period, he abused alcohol and drugs and even attempted suicide.
“I felt like I had no purpose,” he said.
Fortunately, the war veteran sought help. Guerrero checked into the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center to get treatment for his addictions and physical afflictions, and learn anger management.
Guerrero also made new friends at the VA hospital. One of them invited him to join The Mission Continues in 2015. One of the first projects he worked on involved repairing a Vietnam veterans’ Salvation Army house at the West LA VA campus.
“It made me feel part of a squad, part of a platoon,” he says.
He had found a new reason to live, Guerrero said.
Founded in 2007, The Mission Continues — formerly the Center for Citizen Leadership — aims to empower veterans facing the challenge of adjusting to civilian life, and find new missions in their communities.
He began as a regular volunteer, but Guerrero’s commitment helped him move up the ranks. Today he helps mobilize teams of veterans — many having suffered from PTSD — as well as active-duty military members to help neighborhoods in the City of Angels and surrounding communities.
“We focus on the areas of Compton, Watts and South LA, areas most affected by poverty and, lately, the pandemic,” he said.
Recently, Guerrero was among dozens of military veterans and volunteers who helped beautify the Wanda A. Mikes Early Education Center in South Los Angeles. That despite still suffering from lingering effects of COVID-19, which caused Guerrero to be intubated in a hospital.
“My lungs are still suffering,” he said. But, Guerrero added, “I’m very proud that Los Angeles is one of five cities participating in this operation,” along with New York City, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, DC.
Thousands of military members have died in other battles since 9/11. For Guerrero, serving with The Mission Continues is another way to pay respect to fellow fallen Marines.
“To me, it is important that I honor those who didn’t get a chance to live,” he said.
For more information about The Mission Continues, visit www.missioncontinues.org.