Darkhorse’ Marines honor fallen brothers
Camp Pendleton ceremony pays tribute to 25 men killed in Sangin
Friday, April 29, 2011 at 7 p.m.CAMP PENDLETON — One by one, the Marines approached the podium to speak about their brothers-in-arms killed in Sangin, Afghanistan. Each of the 25 men who died with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment during the tour that ended this month was honored Friday at Camp Pendleton by a Marine who knew him best.
Their voices quavered at times and their happiest memories were undercut by sadness, but the respect and affection they showed for the men who fought at their sides was unwavering.
Among the fallen was Lance Cpl. Joseph C. Lopez. He made everyone laugh with his modified moon walk and whistle; he considered his mom and dad to be the loves of his life, and he knew just what to say to reassure a fellow Marine who confessed before they left for Sangin: “hey brother, I’m scared.”
Sgt. Jason D. Peto always had a gorgeous girl on his arm, or a bruise from his latest dirt bike or snowboard outing. “I hate final roll call,” Peto’s friend and fellow Marine, Sgt. Joel Bailey, said.
During Friday’s ceremony, the names of the fallen were called out, but there was no answer. Instead the bell tolled for them and the guns fired in salute.
“Whisper present,” Bailey implored, because Peto’s presence was surely felt, along with all the “Darkhorse” Marines who did not make it back alive.
Several hundred family members joined the 3/5 Marines and their military commanders for the “remembrance ceremony” on a helicopter landing zone high in the clouds above Camp Pendleton. Many more wanted to attend, but the battalion leaders kept the gathering close-knit.
Seven months ago, about 1,000 Marines and sailors from the 3/5 and the 1st Combat Engineers deployed from their headquarters in the San Mateo area of Camp Pendleton for Afghanistan. They had trained together for almost a year before they left California, in snowy mountain passes and desert combat training ranges.
The unit turned over command in Sangin on April 11 to another Camp Pendleton unit from the “Fighting Fifth”: the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The last of the 3/5 Marines returned home last weekend.
Twenty-five Marines from that original group returned “on their shields,” as the Marines say, not including Marines from other units who died alongside them in Sangin, which has been the deadliest area for international troops in Afghanistan.
Each volunteered to join the Marine Corps during a time of war, said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the battalion commander. “While each and every loss in this battalion hurts, we must remember how our comrades lived and what they accomplished,” Morris said.
They sent shockwaves through the insurgency by killing, capturing or wounding well over 600 insurgents in Sangin, where they turned “hopelessness to hope” and removed the yoke of the Taliban from the shoulders of the Afghan people, Morris said: “They helped turn the tide” and won a decisive victory against the enemy.
It hurts knowing they’re gone, the Darkhorse battalion Marines said. But they are comforted by the memory that they died doing what they had trained and strived to do, many while running into gunfire like Sgt. Jason Amores.
Lance Cpl. Irvin M. Ceniceros, for instance, fought to get into the battalion so he could deploy to Afghanistan, then he “rained hell” on the enemy with his 240 machine gun during the October fire fight that claimed his life, Sgt. Ryan Schmidt recalled during the ceremony.
Ceniceros’ actions protected his entire squad that day. “He is our hero and he will always be remembered,” said Maria Ceniceros, his mother, speaking in Spanish.
“Someone asked me, was it worth it? It’s worth it to them, so who are we to question that?” said Lt. Gen. John Kelly, whose son 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, died in Sangin. “They join to do this. They are never so happy as when they are doing what they were doing in Sangin.”
Close to 200 Darkhorse Marines and sailors were wounded, many gravely so. The ones sent to the rear guard to heal made memorial battle crosses for the fallen in the age-old symbol of rifle, helmet and boots.
Many relatives and friends of the fallen wept and clung to the living for support as they caressed the metal tags clinking against rifles. Others knelt with head bowed and kissed the tips of their fingers, then touched the empty boots.
Many wounded Marines flew in from military hospitals around the country to attend the ceremony, rolling over in wheelchairs or walking on prosthetic legs to pay their respects to the dead.
Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez, a 26-year-old Marine who lost an arm and both legs in Sangin, lingered in front of the battle cross of his friend, Lance Cpl. James Boelk.
“It was an honor to be here for our fallen brothers. This was the last bit of closure that a lot of us needed, being all here together,” Dominguez said.
“I am going to live my life to the fullest,” for those who didn’t make it, he said. “That is what I am going to do for all my brothers.”
Katherine Wyatt brought her infant son Michael, who was born the day after his father Cpl. Derek Wyatt died, to meet some of his daddy’s friends. “He was the most amazing man I’ll ever know, and he will be strongly missed,” she said, “even by those who never met him, including his son.”