CAMP PENDLETON — Sgt. Brandon Bury was remembered Monday as a big-hearted Texan, described by an aunt as "a Marine and a sweetie pie all in one wonderful person."
Bury, 26, was one of five Marines from Camp Pendleton to die in Afghanistan in the last nine days -- part of a mounting death toll as the Marines continue their mission to wrest control of Helmand province from the Taliban.
Since the beginning of April, 28 Marines from Camp Pendleton and other bases have died in Helmand from roadside bombs, gunfire and vehicle crashes.
Family members, friends and Marines gathered for a farewell to Bury that included readings from the Bible, mournful poems, country-western music, and a slide-show montage tracing his life from rambunctious childhood through his years as a high school athlete, a student at the University of Texas, a loving husband and father of two boys. He died in a vehicle crash.
"I'm not going to say goodbye," Bury's wife, Heather, said tearfully as she looked at his flag-draped casket. "I know you'll be watching over us. But I will miss you every moment of every day."
Heather Bury was among those Marine family members who met privately Sunday with Michelle Obama before the first lady's speech to 3,500 Marines and family members. Obama paid tribute to the sacrifice borne by Camp Pendleton Marines and families since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no Marine base -- and few bases anywhere -- has sacrificed more for America, more lives, more wounded warriors, than your families and your colleagues," Obama said.
The audience for Obama's speech fell silent as she called out the names of Bury, Lance Cpl. Derek Hernandez, Cpl. Donald Marler, Sgt. John Rankel and Lance Cpl. Michael Plank -- all killed since June 6.
The Marines account for less than 20% of the total U.S. dead in Afghanistan -- in part because the Marine Corps played only a minimal role in the years between the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001 and a return of the force in 2008.
In recent months, under a troop buildup approved by President Obama, the Marines have nearly 20,000 troops in Helmand province, long a Taliban stronghold and where more U.S. troops have been killed (182) than in any other province in Afghanistan during the nearly nine years of U.S. involvement.
Except for a few hundred troops, the Marines have largely departed from Iraq and its Anbar province, once the center of the Sunni insurgency.
But the cost in lives was sizable. Among U.S. bases, only the Army's Ft. Hood (with 485) in Texas has had more troops killed in Iraq than Camp Pendleton, with 351.
Bury had served two combat tours in Iraq, receiving a Combat Action Ribbon. Several of the montage pictures were of Bury and other Marines in Iraq.
The ceremony was punctuated with occasional crying of small children. Many adults had tears in their eyes. Some of those adults were Marines.
Patricia Mills, wife of Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the top Marine in Afghanistan, was among those who packed the Memorial Chapel to honor Bury. Her husband has said there will be more fighting and more casualties until the Marine mission is complete; Patricia Mills has attended numerous memorial services.
"It never gets easier," she said