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Camp Pendleton remembers, mourns 17 Marines killed in Afghanistan

A somber memorial service pays tribute to troops from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment who recently died in the continuing fight for the Taliban stronghold of Sangin.

November 05, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • A Marine bows his head in front of the rifle, boots, helmet and dog tags of one of 17 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment who were killed during their recent deployment to Afghanistan's volatile Sangin region.
A Marine bows his head in front of the rifle, boots, helmet and dog tags of… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton -- The rain and cold were appropriate. "Somber weather for a somber occasion," the battalion commander said.

It was a tearful morning of remembrance and mourning Friday as hundreds of Marines and family members paid tribute to 17 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment killed in a recently completed deployment to the Sangin region of Afghanistan.

To listen to comments by Marines about the fallen was to learn of the shared dangers of the fight in Sangin, long a Taliban stronghold.

"Regardless of the situation, I always felt safe with him," Cpl. Brandon Dillon said of Lance Cpl. Ronald Freeman.

Cpl. David Fillmore said that Lance Cpl. Robert Greniger had "a level of self-confidence [that] was enough to make an entire squad fearless."

One by one during the hour-long service, Marines talked of the dangers of patrolling in a region laden with buried bombs and where enemy snipers fire from "murder holes" in mud dwellings.

Photos: Camp Pendleton honors Marines killed in Afghanistan

Lance Cpl. Jeffery Lopez said that Lance Cpl. Joshua McDaniels "would walk up front without showing a bit of fear."

Lance Cpl. Armando Ribeiro, his voice breaking, said of Lance Cpl. Norberto Mendez-Hernandez: "Mendez always had the fearless mentality — never thinking of himself. He's no longer with us, but we'll never forget him."

Marines who will forever carry the physical and emotional scars of Sangin were in attendance. So were family members of the dead, some weeping, some wearing buttons with the names of their lost sons and husbands.

"It's just terrible," Catalina Oseguera said as she knelt before a picture of her husband, Sgt. Adan Gonzales Jr. "He was so full of life and such a good person. I can never do him justice."

Of the 17, nine were lance corporals, three were corporals, four were sergeants and one was a gunnery sergeant. The youngest was 20; the two oldest were 29. The 17 included snipers, riflemen and specialists in finding and defusing the buried bombs that are the main killer of U.S. and Afghan military personnel.

Sgt. Joseph Moore said that Sgt. Daniel Patron, an explosive ordinance disposal expert, "walked ahead to clear the [buried bombs] so the Marines didn't have to."

Sangin, part of Helmand province on the border with Pakistan, is a fight the Marines are determined not to lose.

Late last year, as more and more Marines were killed in Sangin, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered to allow the Marines to withdraw.

"Absolutely not," Commandant Gen. James Amos told Gates. Instead, the Marines ordered more reinforcements and equipment to Sangin and vowed not to quit until the Taliban is vanquished.

In April, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment returned to Camp Pendleton from Sangin, its deployment finished, with 25 dead and 184 wounded, including 34 who lost one or more limbs to traumatic amputation. The 3-5 was replaced by the 1-5, making its second deployment to Afghanistan.

In October, the 1-5, whose motto is "make peace or die," returned home, with 17 dead and 191 wounded, many grievously. The fight for Sangin is now largely the responsibility of a battalion of Marines from Twentynine Palms, northeast of Palm Springs.

Much of the duty in Sangin is walking through villages, trying to win the trust of farmers by not rolling by in armored vehicles like an occupying army. With foot patrols comes added danger.

Lance Cpl. John Farias "went to hell and back in Sangin every day," said Lance Cpl. Christopher Miles. "We miss you Johnny boy, we really do. See you on the other side. Semper Fidelis."

Photos: Camp Pendleton honors Marines killed in Afghanistan

tony.perry@latimes.com

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