Painting honors Marines fighting in Iraq

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON ---- As they near deployment back to Iraq, many for the third time since the initial U.S. invasion in 2003, Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment paused Tuesday to honor their comrades killed fighting in Fallujah in 2004.

They did so in a ceremony at the battalion's headquarters at Camp San Mateo near San Onofre, where a painting dedicated to all the Marines in Iraq and especially those killed in the 2004 combat was unveiled by its artist, retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Morris.

The painting, "Darkhorse Squad Leader," saluted the 19 members of the unit, known as the three-fifths, who died in street fighting in the troubled Iraqi city of Fallujah in November 2004 and December 2004.

The squad leader depicted in the painting was roughly modeled after 2nd Lt. James P. Blecksmith, who was killed while directing his squadron from a rooftop in a firefight that took place on Nov. 11, 2004.

"This painting is dedicated to all the Marines of the three-fifths," Morris said, adding he particularly thought of the deaths recorded in Fallujah and of Blecksmith as he produced the work. "He died taking care of his people," Morris said.

"Darkhorse" is a nickname for the battalion that, along with more than 20,000 other Camp Pendleton Marines and sailors, is set to deploy back to Iraq's Al Anbar province to relieve the II Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Blecksmith's parents, Ed and Pam Blecksmith of the Pasadena area, attended the dedication and praised the painting while remembering the sacrifice of their son.

"A part of me died when J.P. was killed in Fallujah leading his Marines," said Ed Blecksmith, who, like his son, had followed his father into the Marine Corps and served as a platoon leader during the Vietnam War. "It is fitting that this painting reside with the Marines who inspired it."

Pam Blecksmith said she will forever be proud of her son and called Morris' painting a good way to honor his memory.

Morris said he spent more than 100 hours producing the painting, which depicts a squad leader in full armor with a slight head wound.

A resident of Irving, Texas, Morris spoke at length about the importance of officers keeping watch over their troops and the endless worry that goes along with leading men into battle.

"You never stop worrying," he said.

He spoke often with Ed Blecksmith as he worked on the portrait, he said, and his heart will forever be "with them and all the other parents of the Marines that were killed."

Prior to the unveiling, Col. Pat Malay spoke emotionally about those who have died in Iraq and in particular about the loss of Blecksmith.

"It's been a year, but it's still very powerful," Malay said as he fought back tears and recounted when he first heard that Blecksmith had been killed. "It's fitting that we remember a fallen lieutenant who died on a rooftop directing his Marines."

Two retired Oceanside Marines who attended the ceremony, Marty Vasquez and Manuel Mancillas, said they were present to honor the fallen and to salute those about to enter into harm's way.

"We're family," Mancillas said. "We have memories from our service and these Marines heading to Iraq are going to be creating their own memories that will be part of the future of the Marine Corps."

As a member of a retired Marine organization, Vasquez said it was important for him to be present.

"What these Marines are doing now is what we did years ago," Vasquez said. "We remember what we went through and what these Marines are about to go through.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine."

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or