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CALIFORNIA

An old battle and new lives

Reunion gathers veterans and family members of the fallen who served in Husaybah, Iraq, to reminisce and share a poignant bond

March 25, 2013|Tony Perry
  • Members of the Marines' Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, based in Twentynine Palms -- from left: Kevin Lanzi, Dominique Neal, William Champion, Joseph Talavera and Austin Herbel -- gather around a map of Husaybah, Iraq, as they recall the lengthy firefight there after the U.S. invaded Iraq 10 years ago.
Members of the Marines' Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment,… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

TWENTYNINE PALMS — A large U.S. military map of Husaybah, a remote city on the Iraqi border with Syria, was spread across a table in the garage of a home outside the Marine Corps base here.

The young men looking at the map know a great deal about Husaybah: They fought some of the bloodiest battles of the U.S.' long war in Iraq there.

Remembrance of those days, unscripted and passionate, was at the heart of a reunion this past weekend of 75-plus Marines who served in Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. The occasion: the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-led assault to topple Saddam Hussein.

Lima Company was part of that invasion in 2003, securing an entryway into Iraq for the rest of the 1st Marine Division and then fighting on to Baghdad. And in 2004, Lima Company returned to Iraq, assigned to wrest control of Husaybah and the surrounding desert from an entrenched enemy and stem the flow of foreign insurgents and weaponry from Syria.

"Even Saddam couldn't control Husaybah," said Austin Herbel, 30, a civilian who was a lance corporal in 2004. "It was one tough town."

On the wall of the garage were pictures of seven Marines from Lima Company killed during the 2004 deployment, including three whose widows attended the reunion.

Herbel and Brian Bilderback, 28, a lance corporal in 2004 who is now a power company lineman in Seattle, recalled one particularly violent day when insurgents tried, unsuccessfully, to overrun the Marine outpost.

"Here's where we dismounted and immediately started taking sniper fire," said Bilderback, pointing to a street near a wadi and a marketplace, down the block from a mosque.

As fighting raged for weeks, a Marine general came to Husaybah to lead from the front. "He handed out Purple Hearts while we were taking mortar fire," Herbel said with admiration.

The reunion started Saturday morning with a tour of the nearby base where the Marines had trained. Then the party adjourned to an off-base bash that lasted long into the evening, complete with potables, cigars, a pig roast, videos recorded in Iraq and an impromptu bonfire.

All but a few of the Marines are no longer on active duty. Many had enlisted soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

"They were really just babies then," said retired 1st Sgt. Daniel Calderon, 43, now living in Ventura. "Look how they've grown. Iraq made them into men."

For many Americans, talk of Iraq often leads to discussion of the political decisions in Washington that led to the U.S. invasion. Not so for the Marines who fought in the war.

"Despite the geopolitical uncertainty of what we did, we had orders from the president of the United States, and we carried them out honorably," said Tom O'Neil, 39, who left a job as a stockbroker to become a Marine officer in 2001.

"We were part of a family that trusted each other and looked out for each other, and that's what is important to us."

Jessica Gibson, 31, who lives in Simi Valley, brought her two children, Ivy, 12, and Lucas, 10. She wanted them to meet men who knew their father: Cpl. Christopher Gibson, killed in April 2004 and posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for bravery.

"They struggle to stay connected with a father that they know only through pictures," said Gibson.

"I want them to know that he was a real person: that he loved his men and his men loved him. Regardless of what other people say about the war, that's what is important to me."

Amy Valdez, 28, came to the reunion from Texas particularly to see Gibson. Her husband, Lance Cpl. Ruben Valdez, was killed the same day as Gibson's husband.

The couples lived in the same area on base, and Gibson had been notified first. Valdez was on her way to comfort her when she was notified that her own husband had been killed.

During the morning tour of the base, the group went to see a display of pictures of fallen Marines and sailors from the 7th Marine Regiment, which did multiple deployments to Iraq and has completed two to Afghanistan. "I was OK until I saw his picture, and then I broke down," Valdez said.

Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Dennis Stieber, 49, of nearby Yucca Valley said one goal of the reunion "is to help the guys find resolution to any loose ends they haven't been able to tie up. To me, I'm always going to look at these guys as my sons."

Like the others, Stieber said he is unmoved by opinion polls showing a lack of support for the war among the American public.

"I don't know what Americans saw," Stieber said. "I know what I saw with my own eyes: I saw people who were genuinely grateful that we had left our homes to get them out of an impossible situation."

Joe Talavera, 29, a Los Angeles police officer, did three tours with Three-Seven in Iraq. He said that although most of the Marines at the reunion had not seen each other in years, they slipped quickly into patterns of easy conversation from their shared experiences.

"When you go through what we did, it defines you for the rest of your life," Talavera said.

Lt. Col. George Schreffler III, Lima Company's commanding officer during the 2003 invasion as a captain, sent a letter to be distributed to the attendees.

"Not a day goes by that I do not recall Christopher Wasser, Gary VanLeuven, Christopher Gibson, Michael Smith, Ruben Valdez, Richard Gannon, Jacob Lugo, their families and other lost friends," wrote Schreffler, listing the names of Marines from Lima Company killed in combat in 2004.

The fallen, Schreffler said, "never enjoyed the opportunity to grow gray or bald and will always be remembered as young men by those who remain."

Gannon, a captain, was the commanding officer of Lima Company in 2004. His widow, Sally, 40, who lives in San Diego, came to the reunion with their daughter and three sons, ages 11 to 21.

"I've been so excited, I couldn't sleep," she said. "This is our extended family."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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