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thedrifter
05-25-09, 08:13 AM
Memorial Day never ends on Marine base

Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – An American flag encased in glass dominates the living room of the town house Marine Staff Sgt. Ryan Gray shares with his wife and two young children.


Sewn onto the flag with black thread are the names of 30 comrades from Gray’s company who lost their lives in Iraq. Twenty-five died in a helicopter crash. Gray was almost one of them.


He had thrown his pack aboard the Super Stallion-53E headed to the Syrian border, but there was no room for him. He jumped aboard a second chopper. That one landed safely; the other crashed in a driving sandstorm, killing everyone aboard.


The flag, which Gray bought and had embroidered in Kuwait, is among the family’s most cherished possessions.


“We’re the voice and spirits of the boys who didn’t come home,” said Gray’s wife, Alexsia.


When the Marine Corps moved the family to Camp Pendleton, Gray told the movers, “You can break anything else, but don’t dare break that flag.”


After eight years of war, memorials large and small, formal and informal, have appeared throughout homes, offices and training sites on this sprawling base. Some enlisted Marines are tattooed with the names of buddies they’ve lost. Others have decals with the names on their cars and trucks.


For much of the Iraq war, Camp Pendleton, home to the 1st Marine Division, held the grim distinction of having more troops killed and wounded than any other U.S. military base. Every day at the base is Memorial Day.
Back to battle

From the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 to the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and the bloody fight with insurgents in Anbar province, Camp Pendleton troops have fought in the vanguard. Now they’re returning to Afghanistan as part of a more aggressive strategy ordered by President Obama.


Last week, Gray, a decorated veteran of the battle of Fallujah, and more than 1,000 Marines and sailors from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, headed to Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold. The deployment is for seven months, maybe longer.


For Gray, it’s his fifth overseas deployment in seven years. He was about to become a recruiter, but before he could start, he was transferred to the One-Five, which needed non-commissioned officers with combat experience.


“It’s not going to be an easy mission,” said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the battalion commander. “We have no doubt they’re going to fight us, and we have no doubt they’re going to lose.”


Outside McCollough’s office are framed photos of 16 Marines from One-Five who were killed in Ramadi in 2006. Across the street from McCollough’s office is a granite memorial to all 5th Marine Regiment troops killed in Iraq.
‘They don’t obsess’

Navy Cmdr. Paul Shaughnessy, a Catholic chaplain who has deployed four times to Iraq with Marines, said thoughts of the dead are never far from their minds, but they rarely speak about them.


“They don’t obsess,” he said.


But even when Marines talk tough about combat, emotions about the dead can intrude.


Col. Patrick Malay, the rough-hewn commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, told a group last month that the unit’s success in Iraq is from “the killing power of a Marine infantry battalion.”


But his voice faltered when he talked about Lance Cpl. Drew Weaver, killed when an insurgent bullet struck him inches above his protective vest.


At 29, Ryan Gray is a combat veteran whose experience is in demand. He has done one tour in Iraq and three “floats,” in which Marines sailed to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf for training and to be a “force in readiness.”


Less than one-third of the Marines in One-Five have deployed to Iraq, and only a few have seen combat. Gray will lead a 20-man group in Weapons Company that may operate independently to gather intelligence or support Marines in firefights.


“Not only is he technically and tactically proficient, he can bring some adult perspective,” said Capt. Matt Danner, commander of Weapons Company, an infantry company that also carries heavy weapons, such as machine guns, and Gray’s specialty, mortars.


When he talked of the Afghanistan deployment, Gray did not discuss its geopolitical significance. He talked about the young Marines under his charge, many barely out of high school and hoping to earn a Combat Action Ribbon.


“They say they want that, but when they see combat, they may change their minds,” said Gray, who has a Combat Action Ribbon for the 2004 battle of Fallujah in which Marines had to rout heavily armed insurgents from barricaded homes. “I’m there to guide them, to get them through it. Alive.”

Ellie