TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIF. — Family members of Marine Lance Cpl. San Sim of Santa Ana were among the last to leave an emotional memorial service Friday for 20 military personnel killed during a recent deployment to Afghanistan.
One sister knelt on the grass in front of the ceremonial inverted rifle and cradled her brother's picture. Another wore his dog tags. And yet another wondered aloud why the youngest of the family's 11 children had to be the first to die.
"I'll miss you so much," one sister said, sobbing.
Sim's wife, Karla Cardenas, held a neatly folded American flag given to her by the Marine Corps, while their 1-year-old-son, Donovan, was in the arms of one of his uncles.
"He always thought of others, always," she said of her husband, who was 23 when he was killed.
It was a morning of tears and remembrances as military officials honored 17 Marines, a Navy corpsman, a soldier and an Afghan interpreter killed during the just-completed eight-month deployment of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Most died from roadside bombs, others in sniper attacks and in firefights.
"These were America's best warriors, and fine young men," Lt. Col. Richard Hall, the battalion commander, told the gathering of several hundred Marines and family members at this sprawling Marine base. "They fought and sacrificed for something larger than themselves."
Lynne Crass of Richmond, Ind., said her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Layton Crass, 22, would have been uncomfortable with the solemnity of the occasion.
"He wouldn't like all this sadness," she said tearfully. "He liked to make people laugh. I'm going to miss everything about him."
Leon Taylor said his son, Army Reserve Spc. Deon Taylor, 30, a New York City police officer, was happy to deploy to Afghanistan to mentor Afghan police. "He thought he was making a difference, making things better," Taylor said.
The 2/7 had been scheduled to deploy to Iraq. But in the spring, as the Taliban resurgence became more apparent, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sent the battalion to Afghanistan to work with the Afghan police. Assigned to the Kandahar region, the Marines were soon in near daily combat.
The Taliban attacked in units of 100 or more fighters. In numerous skirmishes, the Marines killed hundreds of the enemy -- while other Marines worked to overcome problems of drug use and corruption among recruits to the Afghan national police.
Friday's memorial comes as the U.S. plans to significantly increase the troop level in Afghanistan, possibly by 20,000 soldiers and Marines in the coming months. In the time that the 1,000-member 2/7 was in Afghanistan, it suffered more fatalities and wounded -- more than 150 -- than the 22,000 Marines in Iraq during the same period.
Lance Cpl. Sim was on his third combat tour, having made two previous deployments to Iraq.
His family had fled Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge, living first in a refugee camp in Thailand and then moving to the Philippines, where Sim was born. The family made its way to Orange County in the mid-1980s.
A graduate of Valley High School in Santa Ana, Sim attended Orange Coast College before enlisting in 2004. As he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan, his citizenship application was making its way through the bureaucracy.
His application was approved Nov. 1, the day he was buried.
"He was a good brother, a good Marine, a good American," said his brother Tom.