Memorial comforts local Marines' families
Sunday, November 11, 2007
By John Agar
The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- It wasn't easy to view the memorial site for his son, Pfc. Bert Witteveen, and four other U.S. Marines killed in Iraq.

But Rick Witteveen, surrounded Saturday by other families in pain, felt comforted. He envisioned families walking past on the trail. They might look up and think about his son, his best friend.

He shared hugs and tears with Marines, young and old, some who trained and fought with his 20-year-old son, so proud to serve.

"Every one of them thanked me for my son," said Witteveen, a Shelby resident. "I thanked them back. They are Marines. They served their country."

West Michigan Marine Reserves dedicated the Fallen Marine Memorial at the U.S. Navy and Marines Corps Reserve Center on Monroe Avenue NW to honor Witteveen, Sgt. Thomas M. Gilbert of Illinois, Cpl. Jacob H. Neal of Texas, Lance Cpl. Jonathan B. Thornberry of Kentucky, and Pfc. Bufford K. VanSlyke of Bay City. They belonged to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, stationed in the dangerous Anbar province.

A Memorial Day ceremony is planned once the memorial is completed.

The memorial will include black granite pillars with etchings of the fallen Marines, rubble to signify Fallujah, and a "battlefield cross" -- rifle, boots and helmet. The smooth granite is to show that Marines turned a dangerous place into one where schools were built, utilities installed and people could find greater peace.

Hopes and prayers

When Alpha Company and families gathered for a party at Riverside Park in June 2006 before leaving for Iraq, they hoped and prayed there would be no need for a memorial.

Within hours, they left for training in California, then Iraq.

Lt. Col. Joe Rossi soon met with families. He told them what to expect if a son or husband was killed. He and others, in dress uniforms, would arrive in a government vehicle. Many parents, worried Rossi would visit, had trouble sleeping.

"I personally pray that I will never have to knock on anyone's' door," he told them. "And our families pray I will never visit them."

On Oct. 26, 2006, he drove to Downers Grove, Ill. He didn't need to tell Mike and Terry Gilbert, whose son attended Western Michigan University, what happened. There are no words, really.

"The family knows why I'm there."

Rossi said the Marines and their families paid an unimaginable price.

The Marines wrote a check: "To lay down their life for another. ... When the time comes, they laid down their lives, just as they promised they would."

All of the fallen Marines had stories. Neal, originally of Texas, did not have to go to Iraq but volunteered to keep a promise to his buddy who was sent there.

All are heroes, Rossi said.

Col. Mark Smith said: "There can be no more solemn occasion than why we gather this morning. This is far more than a dedication. ... You're consecrating as holy this ground. You're consecrating a sacred birth in honor of your beloved fallen."

After the indoor ceremony, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" at the memorial site. Family members sat in front, holding tight, wiping tears.

The memorial "means the world to us," Mike Gilbert said later. He believed in his son Tommy's cause, but the loss is profound.

"It's the hardest thing and worst thing I've ever gone through. He was my only son, my best friend."

Brett Witteveen was engaged to Trisha Kokx of Hart. He and his father, Rick, were extremely close. He lost his mother, Edie, to cancer, at 11.

"It was him and I through most of that time," his father said.

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