Sgt. John Kladitis pays respects to Sgt. William Stacey, one of five fallen… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
CAMP PENDLETON — After the formal ceremony was over, after the traditional order to "honor the dead" had been given, Marines and family members approached what are called battlefield crosses: individual displays of boots, dog tags, pictures and inverted rifles.
Sgt. Dane Bell strode to the display honoring his friend, Sgt. William Stacey, killed by a roadside bomb while on his fifth combat tour.
After their son's death, Stacey's parents had made public a letter he had written in which he told them not to mourn if he was killed because "it was all worth it."
That was Stacey, Bell said quietly, never a second thought about the mission.
"It was his honor to die for his country," Bell said.
It was that kind of morning Thursday at Camp Pendleton, where Stacey and four other Marines killed during a recent tour in Afghanistan were memorialized as honored members of the Magnificent Bastards, the Vietnam-era nickname for the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
They died in Musa Qala and Now Zad, Taliban strongholds where Marines are assigned to train Afghan forces so the U.S. can leave Afghanistan after more than a decade of war.
Lance Cpl. Benjamin Schmidt, 24, was killed when a Marine tank gunner zeroed in on the wrong target. Staff Sgt. Stephen Dunning, 31, an explosive ordnance expert, was killed by an explosion while hunting for buried bombs.
Lance Cpl. Kenneth Cochran and Cpl. Jon-Luke Bateman, both 22, were electrocuted in an accident on base. Bateman died trying to save Cochran from the fatal voltage. Stacey, 23, a squad leader, was killed by a roadside bomb while leading a foot patrol.
Schmidt was the first to die, Oct. 6; Stacey the last, Jan. 31. Last month the Two-Four came home, its seven-month deployment completed, the assignment turned over to another battalion from this sprawling base.
His voice quivering, Cpl. Joseph Orr spoke of hearing about the death of Schmidt, a fellow scout-sniper. "I broke down in tears when I heard about his death," he said. "It hurt and it's painful. I love you, and I miss you, Ben."
For 90 minutes, Marines told the memorial gathering of their love and respect for the fallen. .
At the close of the ceremony, Sgt. Maj. Donald K. Williams, his voice loud and commanding, gave the traditional order, "Honor the dead," which was followed by the playing of taps.
"He had a lot of plans, but he wouldn't want us to be sad," Casey Schmidt, 22, said of her brother.
Memorial services have been a common occurrence at Camp Pendleton in the last 10-plus years of war. There have been fewer of late, with the U.S. out of Iraq and combat operations winding down in Afghanistan.
Despite the drawdown of U.S. forces, the memorial for the Two-Four will probably not be the last at Camp Pendleton, home to the 1st Marine Division. When the battalion left Afghanistan, it was replaced by the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, also from Camp Pendleton.
And on Thursday, just as the Two-Four memorial service began, the Department of Defense announced the death of another Camp Pendleton Marine in Afghanistan: Lance Cpl. Ramon Kaipat, assigned to the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
Kaipat, 22, of Tacoma, Wash., was on his second deployment to Afghanistan.