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Camp Pendleton honors 14 troops killed in Afghanistan

Eleven Marines, two Navy corpsmen and a British soldier assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment are praised for their dedication to duty.

December 04, 2010|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Camp Pendleton — When their convoy was ambushed by Taliban snipers and a fellow Marine was wounded, Cpl. Larry Harris Jr. did not hesitate.

He put the wounded Marine over his shoulders and began to carry him to safety. He had gone only a short distance when he stepped on a buried roadside bomb.

Harris was killed instantly but the other Marine survived. Harris had carried him far enough to be safely out of range of enemy gunfire.

On Friday, Harris and 10 other Marines, two Navy corpsmen and a British soldier — all assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment — were praised for their dedication to duty.

The 14 troops were killed during the battalion's recent seven-month deployment to southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. The battalion, known as the Thundering Third, was assigned to wrest control of the Garmsir district from the Taliban.

"They were courageous, they were strong and they were beloved of their brothers," Lt. Col. Ben Watson, the battalion commander, told several hundred Marines, family members and guests at a tearful memorial service.

"Did their sacrifice make a difference?" Watson asked. "You're damn right it did."

Harris' mother, Lora Merriweather, told reporters that the pain of her son's death is eased somewhat by the fact he saved the lives of others.

"My son served with passion," she said. "He was a man of strength, a Christian. He did things with his whole heart."

Harris, 24, has been nominated for a Silver Star. He also served in Iraq.

It was a morning of remembrance and tears, and a promise by Watson and others that the 14 and their families will never be forgotten.

All 14 were from enlisted ranks. Their average age was 25. Their jobs reflect the growing casualty list in Helmand province: riflemen, medical corpsmen, a dog handler, a vehicle maintenance specialist, explosive ordnance specialists and road-clearance specialists.

"It's been five months, but it's as hard as the first day," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Caskey, 29, whose brother, Sgt. Joseph Caskey, 24, was killed June 26. The older brother served in Iraq and was wounded.

"We're a Christian family," Caskey said. "We're moving on. We know we'll see my brother again someday."

The family of Navy Corpsman William Ortega, 23, brought a photo album of his life to share with the Marines. A group listened intently as Ortega's mother, Maria, talked in Spanish — with English translation provided by another relative.

"He always wanted to save lives," said William's sister, Edna. "He was assigned to a hospital in Afghanistan, but he wanted to be out with the Marines where he could save people. He's our hero."

The 14 fatalities from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, are among the more than 50 Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton killed in Afghanistan this year.

The memorial ceremony, held on a parade deck at the northern edge of the sprawling base, had the traditional elements: the inverted rifles display, the Final Roll Call, a chaplain's benediction, a Marine band, bagpipers playing "Amazing Grace" and the playing of Taps.

Through much of the ceremony, another sound could be heard reverberating off the green hills: automatic weapons fire as other Marines trained to deploy to Afghanistan.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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