Marines' Loss Felt Tenfold
Grief, pride mingle for families after Iraq war's deadliest day for the Twentynine Palms base.
By Tony Perry and Sara Lin, Times Staff Writers

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Just a week ago, Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Martinez had called his mother from Iraq with exciting news.

"He said, 'Mom, go to Zale's and buy a carat-and-a-half diamond — I'm coming home,' " said Kelly Hunt.

Martinez, 20, planned to propose to his longtime girlfriend as soon as he got home to Splendora, Texas, maybe as early as January.

Now Hunt is planning a funeral, not a wedding.

Martinez and nine others from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment were killed Thursday outside Fallouja by the blast of a bomb cobbled together from artillery shells.

It was the largest one-day loss of the Iraq war for Marine units from Twentynine Palms and the largest overall among American troops in almost four months.

The battalion has been in Iraq since July, its third deployment to the war zone. The bombing, which occurred while the men were on foot patrol, pushed the death toll from the sprawling Twentynine Palms base in the Mojave Desert to 75.

"These men did not give their lives in vain," Col. William Crowe, commanding officer of the 7th Marine Regiment, said of the 10 on Saturday. "We will not soon forget our fellow brothers."

Initial news reports said the Marines were part of the 2nd Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Actually, the Marines from Twentynine Palms were augmenting the forces from Camp Lejeune.

The battalion lost three of its members earlier in the war, and families' nerves had been frayed. But a recent newsletter from the command had suggested the worst was over.

"Things are going very well," the newsletter said. "While we have had casualties, our spirits are high and we continue every day to look for ways to win."

Some families had dared to plan for a celebratory return.

Shirley Watson of Union City, Mich., was going to Twentynine Palms to greet her son, Lance Cpl. Craig N. Watson, 21, as soon as he stepped off the bus.

"He told me I'd better have a beer in my hand for him," she said. "He was so ready to come home; he was so close."

In Romeoville, Ill., the family of Lance Cpl. Adam W. Kaiser, 19, had planned to keep the Christmas decorations up until he came home, they hoped in mid-January. Then came the midnight visit from the casualty team.

"Soon as you see their faces, you can tell what happened," said Kaiser's father, Wade, of the somber visitors. "The worst part is later: You sit there in disbelief. You can't sleep, you can't eat, you keep thinking maybe it's a mistake.

"It's about as horrible as you can imagine."

Timothy Holmason of Scappoose, Ore., lost his son, Lance Cpl. John M. Holmason, 20.

"It was about 1 a.m. and I heard the knock," he said. "I looked out from the second floor, and I knew immediately when I saw the Marines there."

Some parents Saturday were pondering their sons' fateful decision to enlist in the military branch most likely to send them into a combat zone.

"When he talked about the military, I suggested the Air Force, but he was Marine Corps all the way," Holmason said.

Many families and friends expressed grief mixed with a powerful sense of pride.

The family of Cpl. Anthony T. McElveen, 20, of Little Falls, Minn., declined to talk to reporters but issued a statement noting that their son enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks and was "proud to be defending our freedom."

Lance Cpl. Scott T. Modeen, 24, "loved the Iraqi kids," said his father, John Modeen of Inver Grove Heights, Minn. "He told me that 'Dad, they're just regular people like us.' "

On the base, which exists to teach desert fighting techniques, Marine families huddled together to offer emotional support and share tidbits of information about the deadly attack.

"The battalion's families are tight; they take care of each other," said Lt. Erasmo Valles, the battalion's family readiness officer. "In a time like this, we get even tighter. Everybody knows the fears."

In town, some business owners and patrons fought tears as they took in the news.

"I hope it was no one I knew," said Bessy Sanford, as she clipped one Marine's hair at Cuts International. "They're our Marines…. It just hurts me that they are dying."

Sgt. Ivory Taylor, 26, who was waiting to get his hair cut, was just as somber.

"Whenever there's bad news out of your home base, you just sit and pray it wasn't someone you know," he said.

Down the street, in the Yellow Ribbon Deli, where Marines make up 90% of the store's business, owner Rosa Mata was in shock.

"I imagine one of them probably came to my place," said Mata, whose deli has a sign declaring "We love and support our troops."

Staff Sgt. Randall McMillon, 38, said that whenever Marines hear of another Marine killed in Iraq, "you wonder if you knew them, if you played ball with them, or if they were a family that lived nearby."

Twentynine Palms was founded by World War I veterans who moved to the desert to be cured from exposure to mustard gas, said Doris Lawless, a docent with the local historical society and a retired teacher.

Today nearly half the community of about 28,000 works at the base, Lawless said.

Even those with no direct ties to the base feel the effects of the war.

"The dry cleaners know when the Marines are deployed. They all take their dry cleaning in before they go," Lawless said. "We're very attuned to the people and their losses here."

When Marines return from a tour, families and business owners alike line the streets to watch the buses pull in, led by sheriff's and California Highway Patrol escorts with sirens blaring.

"The wives are out with signs — huge signs. They come in, and then they're gone again," Lawless said of the troops.

The death of local Marines is especially hard on the children in town, Lawless said, many of whom have two parents in the military.

"We teach them resiliency," said Lawless, who taught in local schools for many years. "You can't go under if something happens. This is an important skill here."

"It's not something anybody dwells on," said John Masterson, owner of the Wonder Garden Cafe in town and a former Marine corporal.

Among the dead in Thursday's incident were Lance Cpl. David A. Huhn, 24, of Portland, Mich.; Lance Cpl. Andrew G. Patten, 19, of Byron, Ill; Sgt. Andy A. Stevens, 29, of Tomah, Wis.; and Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Clay, 27, of Pensacola, Fla.

"I just hope my son made a difference," said John Modeen. "I hope they all did."

Times staff writer Jason Felch contributed to this report.