From Goldman to Grunt

From Goldman to Grunt
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The events of 9/11 destroyed untold lives, and changed many others.

For Kevin Mincio, the nine-year anniversary of that terrible day is a reminder of just how dramatically his own life was altered, veering toward a path this former Goldman Sachs vice president never would have imagined.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, Mincio, at age 31, traded banking for combat as a U.S. Army infantryman, eventually serving in Iraq during the deadliest phase of the war.

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"9/11 changed me, forever, and it changed me for the better," said Mincio, whose eight-year military commitment officially concluded earlier this year. He spent the past two years in the reserves as an ROTC instructor.

While he's not the only American who left behind a comfortable life to join the military after 9/11 -- Pat Tillman, a former NFL football player who was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan, remains the best known example -- Mincio's patriotic calling was just as unexpected, if not as well publicized.

Now living near Fort Lewis in the Seattle area with his wife Heather, Mincio works as the director of technology for an estate management company, and as an assistant high school lacrosse coach at Mercer Island High School. He has no intention of ever returning to Goldman.

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For the first time, Mincio has agreed to share the details of his journey from Wall Street to war and back again.

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Around 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, a large group of Goldman Sachs employees at the firm's One Liberty Plaza offices dialed into a conference call. On the agenda: integrating the Investment Banking Technology team within Goldman's larger, firm-wide technology division.

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As a key member of the banking tech team, Mincio listened intently as the managing director leading the call wound down his presentation and invited questions shortly before 9 a.m.

Next came a split second of complete silence, followed by the deafening sound of an explosion -- the first plane striking the World Trade Center's North Tower just a few blocks away.

Suddenly, Goldman's new technology initiative was the last thing on anyone's mind. For America, and, as it turned out, for Mincio, it was war.

Like a lot of people, Mincio was shaken to his core by the events of that fateful day. Lower Manhattan had been transformed into something unimaginable. Power was shut off. Ash and debris coated the entire area. Mincio spent the next week in and around Ground Zero helping to lead Goldman's recovery effort. He was part of a group assigned to salvage and re-set the bank's computer system. As Mincio carried out this mission, he saw firemen, policemen, construction workers, everyday people, all searching for signs of life.

Operation New Dawn
Operation New Dawn

"What I experienced, the sights, the sounds, the smells, all of the emotions, ultimately that's what made me realize I had to enlist," Mincio said.

A native of Holbrook, N.Y., on Long Island, Mincio had been a lacrosse goalie in high school and at the University of Connecticut. Athletic, physically fit but not exactly a portrait of self-discipline, Mincio, an eight-year veteran of Goldman, had become accustomed to his fast-paced lifestyle, often travelling to Europe and Hong Kong on assignment.

Goldman and Greed
Goldman and Greed

His parents and closest friends urged him to reconsider, but eventually realized his mind was made up.

"My first reaction was, 'Are you out of your mind?' recalled Mincio's father, Ron. "But, knowing my son, once he set his mind to something -- that was it."

"He knew he had to do something other than save computers," said his mom, Karen.

On Feb. 22, 2002, Mincio enlisted in the Army as an infantryman. He sold his house, his car and most of the rest of his possessions, and prepared to ship out.

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However, nothing could have prepared him for Infantry School, Fort Benning, Ga.

"It wasn't so much the physical aspect of it," Mincio said. "I mean, here I am this 31-year-old Wall Street guy with a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids. I was completely out of my element."

Mincio quickly began to second-guess his decision. Three days after the 15-week training regiment began he paid a visit to the office of his platoon drill sergeant. Head hung down, Mincio explained that he had made a mistake and asked if he could go home.

Sgt. First Class Russell Ballew gave him a choice.

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"He called me a [wimp] and assured me that I would regret quitting for the rest of my life," Mincio said. "But he also said that if I changed my mind he was going to put me in charge of the entire platoon. I guess he saw some leadership skills in me. Even now I still find myself feeling grateful for the advice he gave me that day. He was right. Quitting would have been the worst decision of my life."

Mincio indeed stuck it out, and as platoon leader began to manage their affairs like he would a business, always keen to maximize efficiencies. For example, he figured out a way to get all the laundry done overnight during guard duty. On Sundays, Mincio, accustomed to long hours and working weekends from his days at Goldman, organized a landscaping detail to keep the grounds just outside the barracks well groomed.

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About halfway through his training at Fort Benning, Mincio went to the Central Issue Facility to pick up some new boots, T-shirts and fatigues, his "second issues." He looked around and noticed a fresh batch of recruits waiting to pick up their first-issue uniforms. A drill sergeant called Mincio over to meet with one newcomer in particular.

Like Mincio, the guy was older than the others in his class, and had an interesting background prior to enlistment. The two soldiers chatted briefly about some of the challenges of life on the base, and wished each other luck.

That soldier was Pat Tillman.

"I remember he was friendly and treated me with respect," Mincio said. "And I definitely felt a strong connection to him because in my opinion we both still carried a strong sense of duty from that fateful day."

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One week prior to the first anniversary of 9/11, Mincio graduated from Infantry School. He'd come through the nearly four months at Fort Benning a completely changed person, a soldier. Mincio was even selected to stand in front of his entire class to salute the company commander during the commencement ceremony.

"I had tears in my eyes at that moment," he said. "I had never felt more proud of myself."

From there, it was off to Scout Selection in Fort Lewis, Wash., an intense trial of mental, physical and emotional endurance. Mincio made it through, despite nearly drowning during a brutal combat swim test.

With the early phase of the war in Iraq under way, Mincio, still at Fort Lewis, was assigned to an experimental brigade preparing to roll out a brand new Army vehicle, called the Stryker, a faster, sleeker version of the Armored Personnel Carrier. The Stryker was, at that time, in mid-2003, considered to be a key piece of equipment needed to turn the tide of the war in Iraq, which had gone from "Mission Accomplished" to bad, to worse.

As Americans began to question the decision to go to war, Mincio remained sure about his own choices, and steeled himself for a one-year tour of combat duty.

Around Thanksgiving of 2003, Mincio, as a member of the 1st Stryker brigade, was deployed to Kuwait; and, in December 2003, he found himself in a convoy travelling along the infamous "Highway of Death," heading to the small city of Sumarah in Iraq's Sunni Triangle region.

There he was assigned to the legendary U.S. 4th Infantry Division -- as it turned out on the very day that the division captured Saddam Hussein.

Mincio belonged to a Scout Platoon, part of the newly formed Stryker Brigade Combat Team, part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry unit. Initially, Mincio's unit was attached to the 101st Division in Mosul at a time when fighting was becoming increasingly ferocious. This was also an anxious time of transition as the 2nd Infantry was replacing the 101st Division, on its way back home.

Mincio eventually left his scout platoon, assigned instead to work directly for Deputy Brigade Commander Robert Choppa, who is now a colonel.

"Kevin was known for his hard work and focus," Choppa told ABCNews.com by e-mail. "He was always ready to assist wherever needed."

Taking part in numerous combat missions, Mincio entered a world where mere inches separated life and death. During one March 2004 patrol, Choppa's men were ambushed by AK-47 fire, according to Choppa, who was wounded by bullet fragments.

"Kevin was first to return fire," Choppa said. "He broke the ambushers."

"You never know how you are going to react when you first encounter actual combat," Mincio said. "When I had to engage the enemy and face my fears, I was able to."

Back on the home front, Mincio's loved ones prayed for his safety and waited nervously to hear from him.

"There was no infrastructure in Iraq during the early days and we'd go without communicating for what seemed like forever," recalled Mincio's wife, Heather.

The couple had begun dating in New York right before 9/11. He didn't expect her to understand his decision, but she eventually moved to the Fort Lewis area, where she ended up gaining a profound appreciation for the sacrifices made by the families of soldiers.

"You try to keep the bigger picture in mind -- the rumbling of the towers as they fell are irrevocable memories -- but it's hard to be the one that steps up to the plate," she said. "Kevin stepped up, and I was honored to support his mission."

Mincio's tour included his share of frightening moments, but also some cherished ones, like the memorable day spent as vehicle commander of a Stryker that carried then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus. At that time, Petraeus was leading counterinsurgency efforts and training Iraqi security forces.

Mincio's Wall Street background was put to use during his time in Iraq. He served as his brigade's liaison to the Ministry of Finance for the northern province of Nineveh and advised on privatization of state-owned enterprises and the restoration of Nineveh banking enterprises, including the integration with the Central Bank of Baghdad.

But perhaps Mincio's claim to fame in the Army is the time when he helped arrange for 8,000 pounds of Starbucks coffee to be distributed to some 5,000 troops at Fort Lewis prior to deployment to Iraq (pulling off the maneuver by air, land and sea, and with an assist from his wife, Heather, who upon moving to the Seattle area took a position with the coffee company.)

"Everybody remembers this coffee," Mincio said with a laugh.

One of Mincio's closest friends in the Army was a brash, fun-loving California kid 10 years his junior, Jesse Williams.

"Fearless," Mincio said of Williams. "A soldier's soldier."

After Mincio and Williams both finished their tours around the same time, they returned to Fort Lewis, relishing having made it back when others had not.

Mincio officially resigned from Goldman. He'd been on unpaid military leave the whole time.

In March 2005, Mincio was handpicked by the Brigade Command sergeant major to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Congressional hearing on the progress of the war.

Before testifying, he visited the Pentagon and met with Gen. Peter Schoomaker, at that time the Army's chief of staff.

"I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity," Mincio said.

That summer, Mincio was honored again -- chosen to serve as a groomsman at his friend Jesse Williams' wedding.

Not long after that, in May 2006, Williams was called back to Iraq for a second tour. Before he left, Williams legally designated Mincio as the primary beneficiary of his Soldiers General Life Insurance policy, and asked that should anything happen to him that he help look after the finances of his new bride Sonya and their newborn daughter, Amaya, until she was 18.

"I think he saw me as his older brother," Mincio said. "And of course I told him I would do anything for him. I definitely saw him as a younger brother."

On April 8, 2007, Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams was killed by sniper fire in Baqubah, Iraq. He was just 25.

Later that year, Mincio, with help from a close friend, Matt Corry, organized Team Jesse to raise money for a trust fund benefiting his fallen friend's young daughter Amaya, now 4.

These days, Mincio has begun the process of making Team Jesse a bona fide 501(c) nonprofit to help other surviving family members of fallen veterans.

"I can't think of a better way to honor a friend who was killed defending our freedom," Mincio said.

A fundraiser is being planned for January. And next September, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Mincio plans to embark on another personal patriotic journey, something epic, ambitious. He's still working out in his head what it might be.

"I feel like I have to do something significant to mark the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and raise awareness for families of veterans," Mincio said. "It's too important. We can't forget."

There's no doubting he will figure out his mission and follow through. Mincio is not one to ignore a calling.

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