by Lisa Maguire
Only a few days into his junior year, the fateful events of September 11, 2001, would solidify Justin Czerwinski’s future. Justin had already been considering alternatives to college prior to heading back to school that fall, but as his friends were taking SATs and scouting colleges their junior year of high school, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was his duty and responsibility to enlist in the military.
Through eleventh grade, Justin had lightly discussed the option of joining the military with his family. As would become the new war-time normal, military recruiters began showing up at more and more events, including directly at high schools like St. Mark’s, and unbeknownst to his mother, Justin went ahead and made the commitment to a Marine Corps Reserves recruiter without her knowledge.
“I have a September birthday, so I was 18 at the very beginning of my senior year.” Justin remembers, “I could sign the papers, and so I did. My mom was pretty unhappy at the time, but she understood that it was important to me.”
After graduating and a summer of working and living at the beach, Justin received his orders to head to Parris Island in October 2003. If you’re unfamiliar, Parris Island is the east coast location of the grueling 13-week boot camp that all Marines must first endure. “They strip you of everything. Completely break you down. You throw everything you’ve ever learned out the window,” Justin recalls, “and then they put you back together. They teach you how to do things the way a Marine does them.”
It sounds alarming, but Justin didn’t recount this experience with disdain or horror, instead with pride. “I can still remember graduation,” he says through a grin, “at the end, when you’re done, when you earn the title of Marine and these drill instructors … these men who have run you down for months, now look at you with respect and shake your hand – man, there’s nothing like that feeling.”
From recruit training, all Marines are then put through Marine Combat Training, another four weeks during which new Marines receive tactical and combat training. After completing combat training, Justin began training for what his “job” would be in the Marine Corps – driving the various vehicles needed for successful military missions. His training would take place at “Motor T School,” (the T’s short for “transportation”), in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.
He would spend almost four months learning his trade near the Ozark Mountains – a beautiful, but sparsely populated area of the United States. While there, Justin was selected for advanced training and learned to drive even the largest of Marine Corps vehicles, including the Logistics Vehicle System. These vehicles are all-terrain vehicles that range in length from 20-38 feet and weigh between 12-25 tons. These massive trucks are usually carrying supplies, which are absolutely critical during wartime conditions.
The war continued to escalate in Iraq, but after completing his job training, the Marine Corps sent Justin home to Delaware. He found a job and reported to the Marine Reserves for one weekend of duty per month. Just about the time, this became his new normal, he and just five other Delaware reserve Marines were activated for duty. Delaware Marines, Justin Czerwinski, Durrell Petty, Paul Wagner, Neil Gowda, and Carl Elder joined reserve units from across the country that specialized in Motor T, bulk fuel, heavy equipment, and engineering in September of 2005 as the Iraqi people prepared for their first Democratic election – a highly unstable time in the middle east.
“So, we arrive in Iraq, and we’re in our first, kind-of ‘debriefing’ meeting, and the First Sargent is going over what’s happening. He then asks, ‘Who wants to volunteer for security,’” Justin remembers hesitantly, “and the room is silent. So, I put my hand up. You know, we’re Marines, we’re the baddest of the bad, right? Well, a few days later, two other Marines in this security position were killed in action. I’d essentially volunteered to fill one of their seats.”
“What was interesting about this job, is that it was just kind of made up. The Marines are famously the ‘first to go, and last to know,’” Justin laughed, “but that’s what’s really cool. They just figure out how to get the job done. It doesn’t matter the resources available, or the obstacles in the way. Marines just adapt and overcome.”
Essentially, the Marines realized that because of the popularity of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with Al Queda, vehicles were at risk during travel, and because resources and supplies are limited and coming from hundreds of miles away, they are critical to keep safe. Justin’s job was to ride in one of two Humvees about 20 klicks ahead of the convoy carrying supplies to look for IEDs. That’s right – Justin’s job was to pretty much go drive the route of the convoy to first detonate any threats that might put the supplies at risk.
In a typical Marine Humvee, there are five jobs – a driver in the front left, the squad leader in the front right, a security seat behind the driver and one behind the squad leader, and a rifleman who mans the mounted machine gun on top of the Humvee. In Justin’s Humvee, he sat behind the driver in the security seat, so his job was to get out of the vehicle in the event of a threat to secure the area surrounding the vehicle and to keep the driver and squad leader safe. This means that in the event of shots fired or a suspected IED, Justin drew the short stick – he was out of the vehicle first.
“We found countless bombs,” he recalls with a seriousness that quickly returns to an almost fondness, “we were supposed to call EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) when we found an IED, but it was a big deal to have to call them in. We could end up sitting there for hours waiting for available EOD to come take care of the explosive, so a lot of the time, we just ended up detonating it ourselves – just taking cover and eliminating the threat.”
Justin spent his full six-month tour in that position, and afterwards returned home in March of 2006 and went back to part-time duty with the reserves. He also needed to find a job.
“Reserve Marines were in this kind of weird position. They kept us on active duty at the reserve unit for a bit of a transition period –other than that is was pretty much back to civilian life. I’d just spent six months at war – I didn’t know where to start the journey back from that,” Justin remembers.
Fortunately for Justin, the love of his life, Ashley Czerwinski, had a plan. “I remember she was just on top everything, she told me, ‘Okay, we’re getting you some nice clothes, and you’re going to this job fair for veterans,” he reminisced of his wife with a smile, “you, know, I’m lucky to have her. Who knows where I’d be without her!”
The job fair was at Citizens Bank Park Justin hit it off with one of the recruiters and he was offered his first job in the finance world at New York Life. As he grew in knowledge and skill, he was feeling more and more ready to explore other options. In seemingly impeccable timing, Michelle Obama launched the 100,000 jobs for Veterans initiative in 2012 due to the unemployment rate for veterans – it was double the national average. Thousands of other opportunities spawned, including a new opportunity to join JP Morgan Private Bank. He continued to further his education and certifications, and he’s now a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch.
While he’s one of the lucky veterans, he also recognizes that there are so many veterans who aren’t. “I think the local community plays a major role in helping veterans after they’ve served. It’s about coming together for a common goal or purpose and lifting these heroes up, giving them the support they need. It’s what makes us the greatest country in the world.”
In addition to supporting local campaigns such as HAC’s, Justin and three other local men have founded “Beds4Vets”. Veteran homelessness is an epidemic, and Delaware’s numbers are staggering. When Justin and his partners called the local VA hospital in Elsmere to see what they could do, they were provided with an extensive list of supplies, and Beds4Vets was born. The foundation raises money to fund the purchases of many items that we all take for granted – like beds, and furniture and household appliances.
“The biggest thing I miss about the military is being a part of something bigger than yourself. Why is the Marine Corps able to achieve – against all odds and obstacles – these incredible feats and missions? It’s because they uniquely train every Marine to operate together. There are two obstacle courses in Basic Training – one is an individual course, and it’s not easy, but the other is a group course, it’s called the ‘Confidence Course’. You cannot complete it alone. It’s that – not just the camaraderie, but the power in working together, the power in putting selfishness aside for the good of the team, and the good of the country.”
Have a Happy Veterans Day, Justin, and all of our veterans. We thank you for your service.