Heath Shumate

Heath Shumate (right) is pictured with a member of his Marine platoon, which was the first to cross into enemy territory in the Iraq War in 2003.

TEXARKANA Tx -- Heath Shumate was already set for marine boot camp at this time in 2001. Then on September 11, he turned on the television and knew he'd be needed for battle -- soon.

"The second plane had just crashed into the tower," Heath says, recalling turning on the television after getting calls from friends.

"I was feeling like everybody else was. Angry. How could this happen? How could this happen to us in our homeland?" he says. "Everybody's first thoughts were we're going to war somewhere.

"It definitely solidified my decision. I was glad that I enlisted when I did," the Maud, Texas native added.

Heath and his Marine unit would be the first ground troops in Iraq in 2003, as the Bush administration linked Saddam Hussein's regime to the war on terror.

"Probably within 10 or 20 minutes of crossing the Iraq border we started getting small arms fire, rockets, RPG's, all kinds of stuff," Heath says. "It didn't seem real until you get on the ground and started seeing bullets or hearing bullets fly by, seeing rockets fly by."

Also in that first hour, Heath's unit lost their first man.

"That's when it really set in -- that it was real," Heath said.

After that deployment, x-rays showed Heath had fractured two vertebrae in his lower back during one of those battles. He was on his way out of the Marines. But then came word his unit was needed back in Iraq.

"I couldn't let my guys go back over there again, and I get medically discharged," Heath says.

Heath got his name off the list for discharge and went back to war. But they took heavy casualties in the Battle of Fallujah.

"There's no way to describe it besides it was chaos. Lot of close calls. Lost a lot of good guys. I had my rifle shot out of my hand twice," he says.

"You're writing the letter to home if you don't make it home. And our company commander -- he came by and he said, 'Everyone of you that wrote letters and put it in your flak jacket, hand them over. 'Cause you're all making it home.'

"He was a warrior and he gave us that spirit," Heath continued. "And said, 'If you think it, it will happen. So if you think you're going to get hit, if you think you're not going to make it home, chances are you won't."

Heath did make it home. And ten years after the 9/11 attacks, he formed a student veterans organization, and planned a memorial ceremony at Texas A&M Texarkana for the whole community, including the youngest generation, some of whom were not even born when our nation was attacked.

"We're responsible for passing it on to them to make sure it's never forgotten," Heath said on that day in 2011.

And a couple of years ago at this time, Heath used his battle skills while volunteering for water and aerial rescues in Houston and southeast Texas following Hurricane Harvey. Heath says that's the fighting spirit he gained while in battle with the Marines.

"I live my life for the guys that didn't make it back, so they didn't die in vain."

If you're wondering about the commander and those letters home by Marines in case of their death, Heath says Doug Zembiec saved those letters for those who didn't make it back. That commander himself would die three years later in a CIA operation in Iraq, as you can read here.

Heath would leave the military as a staff sergeant in 2005. He's now a project manager in commercial construction.

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