CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – It was a sobering reminder in more ways than one.
Marines here marked Memorial Day this morning with a ceremony honoring veterans of all wars, but with a special emphasis on those who have sacrificed their lives here in Afghanistan.
With the flags of the U.S., Afghanistan and Great Britain flying overhead, a single bell tolled once each in the name of 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman who have died since I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) took over April 12 as the command element of Marine operations in southern Afghanistan. Fifteen of those 16 service members have died since May 2, when photographer Tom Brown and I arrived here with plans to embed with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, in Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold that is still hotly contested.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, asked a crowd of 300 Marines assembled to put the deaths in perspective.
“I would ask that you remember them for what they were: Heroes, not victims,” he said. “And I’d ask that you remember their families for what they are: Heroes, not victims.”
After the ceremony ended, many Marines approached two battle crosses – consisting of rifles standing vertically with helmets, boots and dog tags adorning them – erected in honor of the casualties. Several men genuflected to offer prayers, while others gingerly placed a hand on the clean Kevlar helmets on top of the crosses.
As a reporter, I’ve covered dozens of patriotic events and funerals honoring service members lost in combat. They’ve taken place in small towns like Agawam, Mass., and Aberdeen, Md., as I’ve moved to better myself and build a career.
On this day, however, the ceremony felt more personal.
I reflected on the fun-loving Marines living in the rundown schoolhouse I wrote about here, and how hard several of them took the loss of Staff Sgt. Adam Perkins, an explosive ordnance disposal technician who died May 17 following an improvised explosive device blast.
I reflected on the Marines we saw crying at Camp Hanson on May 6 – the very same night we embedded with 3/6 – after they learned that one of their own, Lance Cpl. Christopher Rangel, was gunned down by a sniper while on patrol.
And I reflected on the May 12 death of Sgt. Joshua Desforges, a Marine with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, who grew up in Ludlow, Mass., which borders my hometown of Chicopee.
War is never easy. It’s dirty, messy, terrifying and frustrating, even in the best of circumstances. It takes sacrifices large and small, from the missing of family birthdays and anniversaries to the loss of limbs and peace of mind that some service members cope with after a deployment.
We’ll keep blogging from Afghanistan until we return to the U.S. on June 10. In the meantime, I hope this site has in some small way helped someone, anyone, understand the hardships our fellow countrymen face overseas, and the humor, courage and resolve they use to face them.
Happy Memorial Day to all.