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Tears are mixed with pride at Camp Pendleton memorial for fallen Marines

Tribute is paid to 25 'Dark Horse' troops who died and more than 200 others who were wounded while routing the Taliban from the Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province.

April 30, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Surrounded by other Gold Star families, Jolene Cain holds her nephew Dominic Hernandez while she mourns for her brother, fallen Marine Cpl. Justin Cain during memorial service at Camp Pendleton.
Surrounded by other Gold Star families, Jolene Cain holds her nephew Dominic… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton -- It was a gathering of the wounded in body and the wounded in spirit as hundreds of family members and friends joined a thousand Marines at a memorial service for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, just back from Afghanistan.

But if there was grieving and the sound and sight of tears, there also were expressions of pride in having accomplished a dangerous, deadly job for their country.

"These Marines did what Marines always do," Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the battalion commander, told the gathering. "They took the fight to the enemy and they won."

When the Marines of the 3/5 arrived in the Sangin district of Helmand province in late September, Taliban flags flew boldly throughout the region, the schools were closed by Taliban order and the marketplace was virtually abandoned.

Photos: Memorial service at Camp Pendleton

Seven months later, after hundreds of firefights and the discovery of hundreds of roadside bombs, Sangin is a different place. The Taliban flags are gone; the schools, including those for girls, are open; and the marketplace is flourishing.

The long-term future of Sangin, indeed all of Afghanistan, is yet to be determined, but for the moment, the Afghan government has a chance to establish itself in a region that has long been a stronghold of the Taliban, the narcotics cartel and their allies in neighboring Pakistan.

In those seven months, 25 Marines from the 3/5 were killed in combat and more than 200 were wounded — more dead and wounded than from any Marine battalion in the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

On Friday, the Marines held a memorial for the 3/5 on a hilltop helicopter landing zone with a panoramic view of the green hills of the sprawling base.

The battalion's wounded were brought from military hospitals in Palo Alto, San Diego, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Family members of the dead and wounded came from across the country: among them, a truck driver, firefighter, car mechanic and a three-star Marine general, all of whom lost sons in the fight for Sangin.

The family of Lance Cpl. John Travis Sparks came from Chicago, wearing T-shirts bearing his picture. "He was joyous," Leona Sparks said of her grandson. "To anybody who met him, he became a true friend."

The family of Pfc. Colton Rusk came from Orange Grove, Texas, bringing with them Eli, the bomb-sniffing Labrador who was with Rusk when he was killed. When Rusk was gravely wounded by a Taliban sniper, Eli rushed to his side, guarding him against further attack.

The military arranged for the family to adopt Eli, who now roams the Rusk farm and has bonded with Colton's young brother, Brady.

"We live day by day now, taking care of Eli and making sure Colton is remembered," said his mother, Kathy Rusk. "It makes your heart full with pride to know that your son was loved by so many friends."

Under a blue sky and a light breeze, the fallen 25 were remembered by their buddies, sometimes with halting voices, often while fighting tears.

"It hurts like hell knowing he's not with us," one Marine said of Lance Cpl. Randy Braggs.

They were young: none older than 30. Some had fought in Iraq. Some had never before been away from the United States.

Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, had fought as an enlisted Marine in Iraq, then became an officer and was eager to lead Marines in Afghanistan.

He was leading a patrol when he was killed instantly by an improvised explosive device.

Many of the 25 were religious. Cpl. Tevan Nguyen had a saying scribbled on his helmet: "I won't greet death, I'll greet Jesus."

They trained together in Twentynine Palms for the Afghanistan deployment, had after-hours fun together, and exchanged confidences, sometimes admitting that the prospect of combat scared them. Many had volunteered for the "Dark Horse" battalion in hopes of living up to the battalion motto: "Get Some."

"When I said I wanted to go to 3/5 and kill Taliban, he was right there with me," Sgt. Joel Bailey said of Sgt. Jason Peto.

And so it went for nearly two hours. In the audience were Marines in wheelchairs, some double amputees, some triple, some with severe brain injuries.

A Marine who lost both legs showed the family of Lance Cpl. Jose Maldonado that he now has a tattoo on his arm with Maldonado's name to commemorate their days together in combat.

Many in the crowd — Marines and family members — wept openly as the Marines spoke of a special bond with the fallen.

"I personally think [Lance Cpl. Alec] Catherwood was sent to me by God," said Cpl. Clancy Cheek. "If you knew Catherwood, you are a better person for it."

Sgt. Ryan Schmidt, speaking of Lance Cpl. Irvin Ceniceros, ended his remembrance with a simple farewell:

"Guns up, brother, may you rest in peace."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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