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At Camp Pendleton, every day is Memorial Day

After eight years of war, memorials large and small, formal and informal have appeared throughout homes, offices and training sites on the sprawling Marine base.

May 25, 2009|Tony Perry

CAMP PENDLETON — An American flag encased in glass dominates the living room of the town house Marine Staff Sgt. Ryan Gray shares with his wife and their two small children.

Sewn onto the flag with black thread are the names of 30 Marines who lost their lives in Iraq. Twenty-four died in a helicopter crash. Gray was almost one of them.

He had thrown his pack aboard the Super Stallion CH-53E headed to the Syrian border, but there was no room for him. He jumped aboard a second chopper. That one landed safely; the other crashed in a sandstorm, killing everyone aboard.

The flag, which Gray bought and had embroidered in Kuwait, is among the family's most cherished possessions.

"We're the voice and spirits of the boys who didn't come home," said Gray's wife, Alexsia.

When the Marine Corps moved the family from Hawaii to Camp Pendleton, Ryan Gray told the movers, "You can break anything else, but don't dare break that flag."

After eight years of war, memorials large and small, formal and informal have appeared throughout homes, offices and training sites on this sprawling base. Some enlisted Marines have tattoos with the names of buddies they've lost. Others have decals with the names on their cars and trucks.

For much of the Iraq war, Camp Pendleton, home to the 1st Marine Division, held the grim distinction of being the U.S. military base with the highest number of troops killed and wounded.

Every day here is Memorial Day.

From the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 to the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and the bloody fight with insurgents in Anbar province, troops from Camp Pendleton have fought in the vanguard. Now they're returning to Afghanistan as part of a more aggressive strategy ordered by President Obama.

Last week, Gray, a decorated veteran of the battle of Fallouja, and more than 1,000 Marines and sailors from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, headed to Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. The deployment is for seven months, maybe longer. More battalions will follow.

For Gray, it's his fifth overseas deployment in seven years.

He was about to become a recruiter, but before he could start he was transferred to the One-Five, which needed noncommissioned officers with combat experience.

"It's not going to be an easy mission," said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the battalion commander. "We have no doubt they're going to fight us, and we have no doubt they're going to lose."

Outside McCollough's office are framed photos of 16 Marines from One-Five killed in Ramadi in 2006. Across the street from McCollough's office is a granite memorial to all 5th Marine Regiment troops killed in Iraq.

Navy Cmdr. Paul Shaughnessy, a Catholic chaplain who has deployed four times to Iraq with the Marines, said thoughts of the dead are never far from their minds, but they rarely speak openly about them. "They don't obsess," he said.

With the surge of Army troops into Baghdad, Ft. Hood in Texas has now seen more troops killed in Iraq than any other base, 479, according to, an independent website that monitors military deaths.

Camp Pendleton is second, with 348 Marines and sailors. But factor in two other Southern California bases that often deploy with Pendleton troops -- 115 from Twentynine Palms and 10 from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station -- and the number killed in action nearly equals that of Hood.

Even when Marines talk tough about combat, emotions about the dead can intrude.

Col. Patrick Malay, the rough-hewn commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, told a Dana Point group last month that the unit's success in Anbar province is due to "the killing power of a Marine infantry battalion."

But his voice faltered when he talked about Lance Cpl. Drew Weaver, killed when an insurgent's bullet struck him inches above his protective vest.

Much of the coping with death falls to spouses and other family members.

"It doesn't matter if they've lost one member of their unit or 30, it stays with these Marines forever, and they take it home to their families," said Kristin Henderson, whose husband is a Navy chaplain. "Young spouses are trying to comfort young widows."

Henderson, a journalist, is the author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront," an intimate look at the fears of stay-behind military families. Her husband has gone to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines and is now stationed in Japan.

"As the deployments and the losses pile up, it can get hard to cope," she said. "Within the military community, the losses bind us more tightly together.

"But they also increase the distance between us and civilians who aren't being asked to sacrifice like that."


Alexsia Gray has vivid and painful memories of the day in January 2005 that the helicopter crashed.

Word circulated quickly among Marine families in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where her husband was then based. She delayed returning to their home, afraid she might find officers waiting with tragic news.

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