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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Marine Cpl. Christopher Leon, 20, Lancaster; Killed by a Sniper

July 16, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

In the Marine Corps, Christopher Leon found the direction and discipline that had been lacking in his high school years.

He signed up during his junior year and left for boot camp in San Diego shortly after graduating from Lancaster High School in June 2004.

He loved the camaraderie, the high sense of purpose and the physically demanding regimen of the corps.

In less than two years, he was a corporal, a swift rise indicating that the Marine Corps saw in him the bravery and leadership it prizes. He was already talking of becoming a sergeant.

He excelled in the martial arts program and was part of a specialized unit trained in the dangerous and difficult task of guiding fire support for infantry troops.

Even before he finished his first tour of duty in Iraq, he talked of extending his enlistment so he could serve a second tour with "my Marines." It was not to happen.

Leon, 20, a chief radio operator, was killed June 20 by a sniper's bullet as he and other members of the 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company were on a rooftop protecting Army troops patrolling the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

He is survived by his parents, Jim and Kathie Leon; his birth mother, Nikki Ruhl; his grandparents, Lucien and Rita Hemond; numerous aunts, uncles and cousins; and his fiancee, Aimey Vaccaro. His funeral was July 1.

Leon's parents had supported his decision to join the Marines. "It gave him a focus, a direction. It helped to guide him," said Kathie Leon, of Lancaster.

During a grueling "gut-check" part of boot camp called "the Crucible," Leon broke a foot. He refused to quit. "He had a very strong will, lots of determination, and a very high tolerance for pain," his father said.

Assigned to the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan, he was part of a unit trained to accompany ground troops. Liaison company members must quickly pinpoint the source of enemy fire, then direct counter-fire, either from ground troops, helicopters or attack planes.

It is, in military parlance, a job "at the sharp end of the spear." Maybe for that reason, Leon talked little during his phone calls of the daily violence encountered by troops in Ramadi.

Instead, he wanted to know about his family and his neighborhood. "He said, 'That's the stuff that keeps me grounded, shows me there's something real, something to hold on to,' " Kathie Leon said.

Jim Leon added: "He was a wonderful young man. It was a privilege to be his father."

Christopher Leon and his fiancee planned to be married in December. He was thinking he might join the Los Angeles Police Department and maybe try for the SWAT squad.

At a memorial service in Ramadi, Marine Capt. Adam Blanton praised Leon as "everything I could have asked for in a Marine.... He was the buddy that laughed with us, sweated with us, and walked every piece of dirt we walked, but with a heavier pack and a smile on his face."

Leon's parents and his fiancee received numerous condolence letters from Marines and soldiers, both enlisted and officers, letters mixed with pride and pain.

"He definitely had the heart of a lion and did your family name proud," wrote Marine Maj. Walter Finney.

Army Cpl. Jerred Speller, who was on the roof with Leon, wrote of the frantic moments after Leon was hit as medics tried to stop the bleeding from his head.

"I held his head in my hands the whole time and kept trying to tell him he was going to be OK and we were going to have him out of there soon," Speller wrote. "We finally got him loaded up in the Bradley [a tracked vehicle].... That's when it really hit me. I looked down and saw his blood on my cammys.

"We got back to where we stay.... I went into my room and just sat there. I didn't know what to do and I felt so helpless, and I just kept seeing it in my head over and over again and thought of all the things I could have done differently.

"I went outside and saw our [medic] and he told me, and I just started crying."

Of all the letters, Leon's family particularly appreciated the one from Speller.

"It's a blessing to know that my son didn't suffer, that there was somebody there to cradle his head," Kathie Leon said. "It's a blessing for my heart to know in his last few minutes he was with people who loved him."

If the Leons are still trying to cope emotionally with their son's death, so too are the young men who fought beside him.

"I am so sorry for what happened.... I just keep thinking it isn't fair, the good guys aren't supposed to die, and Leon was one of the best," Speller wrote.

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