Posted on November 17, 2016
Corporal Noel Guerrero is basking in the afterglow of having teamed up with the Semper Fi Fund in planning a Labor Day 2016 weekend reunion that brought together nearly 200 members of his unit, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, and that included subordinate units Echo, Fox, Golf, Weapons and Headquarters and Service companies.
It was the largest gathering of 2/7 members since their 2008 deployment that saw the unit suffer more casualties than any other Marine Battalion that year.
From April through December of 2008, Marines from 2/7 deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Before their deployment was complete, 2/7 lost 20 men and saw 30 more members become amputees. Another 130 suffered a variety of wounds.
“There’s been a reunion or two in the past with 30 to 100 people,” Noel says, “but we wanted to replicate a reunion on a bigger scale where everyone could come in with the Semper Fi Fund involved.”
Noel says that a major impetus for having the reunion is the high rate of suicides among post-9/11 veterans, including members of 2/7. (In September 2015, the New York Times presented a poignant photo essay on 2/7 that highlighted the issue and featured images of Noel and his family.) And it was the twin brother of one of those suicides that provided Noel with one of his most memorable moments of the weekend.
“We had a video made of all the guys who had died, including the suicides,” Noel recalls. “I went up to talk before the video — I’m very articulate, I do motivational speeches all over the place — and the room was full, but I saw the few empty chairs in the room and I just had this vision of all the guys we lost over there. I wasn’t composed anymore, and I couldn’t articulate myself very well.”
“And just as I’m looking at the chairs and breaking down in front of all these guys,” he continues, “I see Wilkinson, whose twin brother served in the 2/7, and who literally brought his brother — he has his ashes with him the entire reunion, he was just carrying a black bag. It could have been a lunch bag for all anyone knew. But he wanted his twin brother to be at the reunion. I asked him to come up to the front, and it just got quiet. Wilkerson walked up — it was carpet, but you could almost feel and hear his steps coming up as he brought his twin brother up there.”
The Labor Day weekend reunion featured a variety of planned activities including archery, swimming and other sports. There was also staff in attendance trained to do social work with Marines that was available to talk to reunion participants as an extra support system.
“We wanted reunion attendees to enjoy the weekend in three ways,” Noel says. “We wanted people to interrupt their schedules and enjoy themselves; we wanted to remember the people who have passed, memorialize them and take the time to discuss how we feel about that; and we wanted to talk about what we’re going through in our lives right now.”
“I’m walking around Sunday morning,” Noel continues, recalling another of the countless memorable moments of the weekend, “and some guys are thanking me for helping with the event. One of the guys said — now remember, we had all kinds of mental health staff there, support staff, and I had visions that people were gonna get enlightened — and he said, ‘You know what?’ And he looked like he was at his wit’s end for a couple years. ‘All I wanted was that one last night, to hang out with everybody, and have a drink in the rooms like we used to in the barracks, and this dream came true.’”
Noel currently works at the Naval Medical Center San Diego (commonly referred to as Balboa Hospital) as part of a research team that’s analyzing walking and running gaits, assessing body mechanics through 3-D cameras. He served as an active-duty Marine from 2007 through 2013 and was injured in Afghanistan on September 19, 2008, while serving with 2/7.
“I was hit by an IED,” he says. “I suffered lacerations, a messed-up knee and a traumatic brain injury. I ended up being in the Wounded Warrior Battalion, where I got to talking to a lot of people. The physical injuries don’t compare to the emotional injuries – living life with that dark cloud over you all the time, always knowing that you lost a big part of you over there. PTSD is the worst injury you can ever come out with.”
Noel found the transition from military life to civilian life to be difficult. The Semper Fi Fund provided a transition grant to help him move into his own place and get a head start on his new civilian life.
“Everyone at the Fund is so committed,” Noel says, “I really appreciate the people who helped me. I talk to my Case Manager, Sara, all the time, and through her I met Sondria.”
Sondria, the Fund’s VP of Case Management for the western U.S., helped Noel with organizing the Labor Day reunion, which he helped plan along with two fellow 2/7 members.
“I was rooming in the cabins with one of our friends who had
a seizure a few months ago,” Noel said, recalling another memorable scene from the reunion weekend. “He’s had a long recovery — long story short, he lost a lot of memory. I didn’t know how bad his seizures were, but at a certain point he
didn’t recognize anybody besides his wife. Anyway, I caught him taking pictures, a lot of pictures — he was like a little kid taking pictures at Disneyland — and I asked him why, and he said, ‘I’m taking a lot of pictures because I just never want to
forget this day.’ ”
Will there be another reunion next year?
“You know, that’s a question a lot of the guys were asking —
it’s completely possible. My dream is we will all be a part of each other and work toward reconnecting all the time.”
“I wanted to create a movement here,” Noel adds, “and it got kind of a head start. With this momentum, maybe we won’t lose anybody this month or next.”