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Marines Receive a Warm Welcome

Battalion with the highest casualty rate in Iraq comes home. The parents of those killed also greet troops.

September 25, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Unified by their grief, the four parents of dead sons felt compelled to be at this Marine base early Friday morning.

Sheila Cobb came from Tampa, Fla.; Sandra Aceves from Chula Vista; Mark Crowley from San Ramon in Northern California; and Diane Layfield from Fremont, also in Northern California.

All had sons killed in the Marines' months-long fight against insurgents in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi.

Tearful and determined, they wanted to be here when their sons' battalion returned home. Their sons were part of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which has suffered more casualties than any Marine battalion in Iraq: 35 dead, 180 wounded and scores injured.

Layfield knew it would be difficult to watch her son's buddies return safely to their loved ones. But she said the idea of staying away was unthinkable.

"I needed to be here to support the other families," she said between sobs. "These were my son's brothers, so they're my sons too. Travis would want me here."

Layfield and other members of her family wore T-shirts adorned with a picture of Lance Cpl. Travis Layfield, 19. On the shirt's back was the notation: "KIA, April 6, 2004, Al Anbar Province."

Crowley, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his son, Lance Cpl. Kyle Crowley, embraced Maj. John Harrill, operations officer for the battalion known as the Magnificent Bastards.

"He was only 18 years old, just 10 months out of high school," said Crowley, haltingly. "I really hadn't finished raising him yet. There was so much that he and I were going to do."

Crowley, a sheet-metal worker, told Harrill that he would like to take him fishing. "Whenever you want," said Harrill.

Cobb carried a poster with pictures of her son, Pfc. Christopher Cobb, 23, and several other Marines.

The death of their sons had brought Cobb and Layfield together.

"Our sons were in the same Humvee," Cobb said. "My boy is dead, but I'm here to tell all the boys how much I love them."

After the buses brought the Marines here from March Reserve Air Force Base in Riverside, they unloaded quickly. Marines sought out Cobb, Layfield, Crowley and Aceves to embrace them, offer condolences and whisper private thoughts to them.

"I'm Doc Mendez's mother. That's how I want to be remembered forever," Aceves said. Her son, Fernando Mendez-Aceves, 27, a Navy medic, was killed while trying to save the life of a wounded Marine.

"I'm so proud of my son, I'm proud of all of them," she said. "I wanted to come and be sure these boys got home safely."

It was a morning of tears -- mostly tears of gladness that a seven-month ordeal was finally over, seven months when family members were terrified that every phone call and every knock on the door might bring the dreaded news.

"You're always on edge. It never leaves you, never," said Bruce Groves, a warehouse employee in Ridgecrest and father of Lance Cpl. Bill Groves, 20.

"You live day-by-day, prayer-by-prayer," said Pam Arneson of Janesville, Wis., whose son is Lance Cpl. Gregg Arneson, 19.

"It was hell," said Paula West, whose husband is Sgt. Dustin West, 33.

As the casualties mounted, family members began to exist in a perpetual twilight.

"It's like your son has a terminal illness and you're just waiting each day to see if this is the day he's going to die," said Connie Moore of Waxahachie, Texas, mother of Sgt. Eric Smith, 22.

For the Groves, Arneson, West and Moore-Smith families, the news was good, and there was talk of reunions, steak dinners and trips back home where more family members, in some cases entire communities, await the Marines' return.

The presence of family members of the dead Marines may have added to the sense of relief among other families who gathered in the parking lot near regimental headquarters.

"My son's injuries weren't all that bad," said Kathy Moudy of Hayward, Calif., mother of Lance Cpl. Vincent Moudy, 19. "He was shot in the arm and fingers."

When the homecoming began to wind down, Layfield, who works for a children's book publisher, said she was glad she made the trip.

"After Travis was killed, I stayed away from people, I became a basket-case," she said quietly. "Today was good for me: to see they're all home. I just wish my son was with them."

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