FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Years ago in “The Big Apple,” Justin Henshaw lived a life many might envy and few would consider trading.
Originally a St. Simons Island, Ga. native, Henshaw was working as a personal trainer at two local fitness centers while gaining popularity and exposure as a television actor.
The events of September 11, 2001 would change the life he had known in the blink of an eye.
“My life up until that point had been all about me and about how much money I could make,” stated Henshaw, a 1998 Glynn Academy High School graduate. “Nine-eleven changed all that. The things that I saw on ‘ground zero’ changed my life.”
Angered by the acts of terrorism against thousands of innocents, but inspired to help his fellow Americans, Henshaw assisted several local churches’ food drives and donated blood.
This was too small a part for him, however. Shortly after, he gave up his blossoming acting career and marched into the heart of New York City on a mission.
“Not long after 9/11, I went to the recruiting station in Times Square and enlisted to be a Marine Corps infantryman,” Henshaw explained. “I stored my stuff away, put some affairs in my life in order, and went off to (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) Parris Island (in March 2002).”
More than three years later, 25-year-old Henshaw is a veteran having served in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Afghanistan. Even after seeing combat and overseas locations, Henshaw said he still felt he had more to do.
“I volunteered to come to Iraq after my old unit got back from Afghanistan (in late 2004),” Henshaw said. “I had the option to go to another unit that wasn’t deploying, but I turned it down because I wanted to contribute to what was going on here.”
Now, he serves with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, a unit that has been conducting counter-insurgency operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province since mid-March.
Corporal Henshaw is a member of the battalion’s 4th Combined Anti-Armor Team, Weapons Company. This group of Marines continually patrols Fallujah’s streets on foot and aboard their armored trucks.
During their early evening hour excursions, throngs of kids often dash out from numerous alleyways to greet and cheer on the vehicles they have come to know all too well. Henshaw and the 4th CAAT Marines have come loaded with treats, and the Iraqi children know that.
The Marines shake hands with the locals and pass out goodies to their children, as gunners aboard the trucks toss out handfuls of gum, candy and peanuts.
“Getting to interact with the kids is one of the things I like best about this job,” Henshaw said. “I believe that reaching out to the children is the best way to reach out to the country, because they are Iraq’s future. Whereas some adults that lived under Saddam’s regime may have a skewed opinion of us, the kids are untainted. Ten years down the road, they’ll remember how we helped them out when they were little.”
Dealing out treats works to foster a sense of trust between the community and the American troops, but Henshaw and his Marines also strive to spread patriotism and love toward the relatively new democratic nation.
“The people seem to love the little Iraqi flag stickers we hand out even more than our candy and soccer balls,” Henshaw stated. “I think it’s awesome that they have so much pride in their country and that we support that. These people here have been through a lot over the years, and they should definitely be proud of being Iraqi.”
Despite their positive dealings with the community, Henshaw said occasional suspicious stares follow his patrolling convoy.
“Some of the people see the stuff we do here as an inconvenience to their lives, but most see that we do it for their protection,” he continued. “If we have to lock down an entire city block because someone places an IED (improvised explosive device) there, people might lose ten minutes out of their day, but we do it to keep them safe.”
Several more weeks worth of these missions await Henshaw and his Marines as they wait to conclude their deployment here.
As his chapter in Iraq draws to an end, Henshaw also prepares to close the book on his Marine Corps experience. He plans to leave the Corps in December to head back to his hometown and ultimately become a physical therapist.
Occasionally, Henshaw said he thinks back to the promising career and big-city life he left behind, but does not miss what he’s come to view as its glitziness and superficiality.
“The Marine Corps made me realize that it’s always been my calling to work as part of something that helps other people,” he stated. “I never knew how easy my old life was until I joined. Working your butt off changes you and makes you more respectful of what you have. I feel these past few years have made me a stronger person.”