Wounded Marine gets hero's welcome in Grand Gorge
By Julia Green
When Grand Gorge native Joshua Williamson was 10 years old, he wanted to be a Marine.
When he was 14, a 15-year-old neighbor lied about his age to join the service and was shipped to Korea, but was soon sent back to the United States when they learned his age. Three years later, that same neighbor re-enlisted – a determination that made an impression on Williamson, who was struck by the fact that a young man would enlist twice during wartime.
“I’ve been saying it since I was in fifth grade,” Williamson said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve just always wanted to be a Marine. My whole family has been in the service; we have a huge service plaque and I don’t even know how many names it’s got on it, probably 20 or 30 names from great-grandfathers and grandfathers and uncles and cousins. It was always an idol thing.”
Williamson said it became an even bigger “idol thing” when his brother, Matthew Knoetgen, served as an aviation technician, working on cobra helicopters.
Williamson, the son of Roxbury Constable Stephen Williamson and Patricia Williamson, joined the Marines and left home on June 30, 2008 – the day after he graduated from Stamford Central School. He completed his boot camp training at Parris Island in South Carolina and attended infantry school at Camp Geiger, the U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Williamson graduated from infantry school in December of 2008 and spent a year in the fleet in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina doing workups and training.
A year later, on December 15, 2009, he was deployed to Afghanistan as a lance corporal with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. In keeping with the family tradition, Williamson’s cousin was also deployed at the same time with the “3-6” – Williamson’s sister battalion.
“I was on the first fire team, so I’m in the front of my formation,” Williamson said. “There are three machine gunners, and I’m the first one. It’s kind of an important job – if we’re getting shot at and we need to get them to stop shooting at us. We have M-16s and M-4s, and they’re point accuracy, so I shoot them and when they poke their heads up again, that’s when the M-16s are supposed to shoot. I’m not supposed to shoot to kill someone; I’m supposed to shoot to suppress them.”
On March 15, Williamson’s unit was on patrol near Marjah in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan when it was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) and sniper fire. Williamson, a team leader, a sergeant and an interpreter were injured, with Williamson, who was shot in the chest, and the interpreter’s injuries being the most serious.
Williamson was transported to a British-run NATO hospital and then to Germany before ultimately being flown to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he spent 10 days before being sent home.
“If you’re good to go in a month, you can go right back out with the guys,” he added. “I knew it was going to be a no, but I still tried anyway. They said, ‘You’re nuts, because you’ve got a blood clot and your chest is all wired together.’”
He returned to Grand Gorge to recuperate, but had to return to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., due to a collapsed lung. He underwent another surgery, despite being told that he could spend two weeks in a hospital bed to see if the problem resolved itself.
“They asked what I wanted to do,” he said. “But there was no point for me to sit in bed for two weeks when there are Marines with no legs coming in that need my bed. I’d rather get out of the hospital for another Marine than sit in a bed.”
Along with his recuperation, getting back to the guys is Williamson’s top priority.
“I want to go back to Afghanistan,” he said. “Lots of generals were asking me what I wanted to do, if I wanted to get out of my infantry, find another job. I told them no, because if I can’t do my job, I don’t want to switch my job. If I can’t be in infantry, I don’t want to stay in the Marine Corps. They don’t understand why, but the Marine Corps is like a brotherhood, and once you’re an infantryman…” he paused. “You can’t just do a regular job once you’ve been a grunt.”
The “1-6,” as Williamson calls his unit, has been in touch with their recuperating comrade.
“They called me about two and a half weeks ago, and they were all excited because they didn’t know if I made it when I got on the chopper,” he said. “When they found out I did, they were ecstatic.”
The call meant that much more to Williamson, who understands the logistics involved in communicating with the opposite side of the world during a war.
“Out there, you get a satellite phone once every two weeks for a couple of days, and probably 45 guys have to use it, and the thing has to charge, too, so everybody gets a five-minute phone call,” he said. “They called me three days straight.”
In fact, despite the much-documented horrors of foreign war, and all the factors that surprise young soldiers during their first deployment, Williamson said that it was the camaraderie between soldiers that impacted him the most.
“Being a Marine in general is a brotherhood, but being in the infantry is completely different than even just being a Marine,” he said. “Being an infantry Marine, you are with these guys every minute of your life. You know everything about them. You could go to a bank and pull out money because you know their social security number and you are them. You just watch each other’s back and make sure they come home.”
Williamson is scheduled to return to Camp Lejeune on May 26, if his recovery continues without any other major setbacks. His battalion is scheduled to return home by July 4, at which point all the senior Marines are scheduled to leave, having fulfilled their duty.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m excited to train my Marines, because I have more knowledge to teach them. All of us are senior Marines now, because we had a combat tour, so were going to get a whole bunch of fresh guys – ‘boots’ is what we call them – and we have to train them to deploy next year.”
Williamson’s unit is scheduled for a MEU, which is an expeditionary quick reaction force deployed and ready for crisis response and which Williamson describes as similar to liberty port.
“After you go through so many combat tours, you’re due a MEU,” he said. “My battalion has skipped a MEU like six times, and we’re not supposed to go back to Afghanistan, but when they did the ratings on who to send back, they said that 1-6 is at the top of the list, and we went right back to Afghanistan, which is fine because I wanted to go. And if we go on a MEU, how am I going to train my guys? We’re scheduled for a MEU, but we’ll see how that works out.”
Williamson was honored at a celebration at the Grand Gorge Firehall on Saturday, during which the Grand Gorge Fire Department presented him with an American flag and the Marine Corps League made him an honorary member.
“I want to thank everybody in the area for their support for my family,” he said.
And, looking forward, Williamson wants to get back to action.
“I can’t wait to go back,” he added. “I want to deploy again to Afghanistan. I want to go back really badly.”