DACULA -- Stephen Johnson knew what he was getting into when he signed up for the Marine Corps.
Just four years earlier he watched from his classroom as the World Trade Center Twin Towers fell, as the nation's defense homebase was attacked, as the heroism of Flight 93 was revealed, and he made a decision. He would fight.
And he would die.
He didn't know it then, but because of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Stephen Johnson would lose his life.
The Marine lance corporal was killed during combat operations in Iraq on Oct. 6, 2006, a year to the day after he received his Eagle, Globe and Anchor, symbolizing his graduation from boot camp,
A few days later, his mother remembered the letter Johnson saved on her laptop, telling her only to open it if the worst happened.
"We're so blessed to have it," Lynn Johnson, a Dacula resident, said of the letter that talks about her son's dedication to fighting terrorism. "It's Stephen's way of telling his story and speaking."
A surge in patriotism finally loosened the funding needed for the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial, a landmark planned before the attacks but erected afterward.
Even though America had been thrust into a global war on terrorism, no one expected to etch so many names in the stone marker with each passing military holiday.
In all 22 Gwinnett men have died in military uniform since the attacks.
Some signed up to fight in this latest war. Others, like Sgt. 1st Class Charles Houghton Warren, had joined the military in peacetime only to be jolted into war by the crash of the planes.
Carol Warren, his widow, remembers the day of the 2001 attacks. Sitting at her office, watching the news coverage, the Duluth woman's thoughts jumped from the tragedy in New York to whether her husband would be deployed with his National Guard unit.
"I'm sure that it had a direct impact on Charles going to Iraq," Warren said of 9/11. "There were lots of scary thoughts going through my head about what it meant for us."
The Warrens had a little more time than the families that were changed that day in 2001. They had a son, Jackson, and before Charles left for Iraq, Carol became pregnant with their daughter, Madeline, a baby that Charles would never meet.
He died Aug. 3, 2005, six weeks after Maddie's birth, at a traffic checkpoint at Camp Striker outside of Baghdad.
The kids, now 8 and 6, talk about their dad on Veterans Day, and, well, really, all the time. But Carol Warren said they haven't made the connection yet to the Sept. 11 anniversary they have been hearing about on television.
"It didn't occur to me to talk about it right away," she said, since her children were just babies at the time. "I give out pieces at a time. ... It didn't even happen in their lifetime. It's just a different experience for them."
But in reading about the children who were born to fathers killed in the Twin Towers, she heard echoes of her life.
"I could see their stories, and how they are similar to our story with growing up without a dad," she said.
For Lynn Johnson, each 9/11 anniversary is a major event.
It was a turning point for her son, and as key a date for her family as for those lost in the attacks.
"I take 9/11 really serious because it happened to all of us," she said. "It's like they were on the front lines and they were the first to get hit. Then, ever since. ... these people keep enlisting.
Johnson, a very proud Marine mom, said her son isn't special. He's part of an amazing generation of young people brave enough to stand up to terrorists.
"They keep showing up to defend us," she said. "I just stand in awe of them."