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Marines honor fallen with cross at Camp Pendleton

The 13-foot cross, carried up a steep hill just before Veterans Day, honors four men killed in Iraq, as well as others who died in foreign wars. It replaces one destroyed by a fire.

November 12, 2011|By Tony Perry and Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times
  • Personnel at Camp Pendleton carry a 13-foot, fire resistant cross up a hill Thursday. The cross was erected Friday at precisely the date and time when World War I officially ended.
Personnel at Camp Pendleton carry a 13-foot, fire resistant cross up a hill… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego and Camp Pendleton — To honor the memory of four Marine comrades killed in Iraq and to show respect for all military personnel sent to foreign lands, a small but determined group trudged up a steep hill at Camp Pendleton on Friday morning as the nation observed Veterans Day.

At precisely the date and time when World War I officially ended, giving rise to Armistice Day — the forerunner to Veterans Day — the group erected a 13-foot cross.

The cross replaced one placed on the hill in 2003 by the Marines before they deployed to Iraq. It was destroyed by a brush fire.

The four Marines were part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. The 2/1 was a lead element in the battle of Fallouja in early 2004.

"We wanted them all to know that they'll always be in our hearts, that they'll never be forgotten," said Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger.

He was also with the 2/1 and will deploy soon for his second tour to Afghanistan with a different battalion. He was wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan but insisted on reenlisting.

The cross, Rettenberger said, is dedicated to the memory of Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Maj. Ray Mendoza, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide.

"All great warriors," Rettenberger said.

Austin and Zurheide were killed in Fallouja in 2004; Mendoza was killed in 2005 while leading Marines into combat near the Syrian border; Zembiec was killed in 2007 while leading a raid on insurgents in Baghdad.

The new cross, made of fire-resistant material, was taken to the top of the hill Thursday. Zurheide's widow, Elena, and Mendoza's widow, Karen, were part of the group. So were Mendoza's two children and Zurheide's son, born after his father's death.

Gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, who was wounded in Iraq, was part of the group that made sure the cross was anchored firmly. So was retired naval officer Scott Radetski, who was the chaplain for the 2/1 and officiated at Zembiec's funeral at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is now a student at Seattle University studying counseling.

Radetski made sure the cross was carried rather than brought by vehicle. The trip took two hours. Carrying the cross, he said, makes the symbolism to Marines at Camp Pendleton more profound: The fallen are never forgotten, the mission never falters.

"We wanted it to be very moto," said Radetski, using Marine slang for "motivational."

And what did he think Zembiec, Mendoza, Austin and Zurheide would think if they saw a cross once again atop the hill?

"I think they'd be smiling," he said.

Perry reported from San Diego. Loomis reported from Camp Pendleton.

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