Shortly before U.S. Marines began their operation earlier this month in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a member of the unit known as "America's Battalion" wrote a letter to his grandmother.
Lance Cpl. Charles Seth Sharp of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, wrote that he would soon be fighting in a mission his grandchildren would learn about in history class. Sharp was among some 4,000 Marines deployed by helicopter and armored transport throughout the volatile Helmand River valley in an effort to counter the Taliban insurgency.
Just days after he mailed the letter, Sharp, 20, died in battle. He was the first Marine killed in the offensive.
Last week, Sharp was buried in his hometown of Adairsville, in rural northwestern Georgia.
A Small Town Remembers
The Northpointe Church in Adairsville was packed. For 3 1/2 hours, the line of people waiting to view Sharp's casket extended into the parking lot. The family stood next to the casket, hugging every well wisher who came through.
Behind them, a giant screen displayed pictures of Sharp. In most of these pictures, as a teen, or even as a boy, Sharp never displayed a full smile. He just grinned, and flashed a few teeth.
"We got three little teeth, and a laugh, and that was it," recalls his father, Ric Sharp.
It didn't show up in photos, but Sharp was playful and a bit of a mischief maker, friends and family say. As the sun went down outside the church, his friends, including Justin Hooper and Patrick Maolin took turns telling stories of getting into trouble with Sharp, who went by his middle name Seth, small kinds of trouble really.
"It was my cousin Justin, and Seth, and they were chewing tobacco. And I was like, man I want some of that. I put a big ol' pinch in my mouth," Maolin recalls. "And ooh, I got sicker than a dog."
Ric Sharp says his some was a character, but never into anything bad.
"He didn't mind having fun...I know I come home one day, and the sheriff's car's in my driveway. And I'm thinking, oh Lord, what have these kids done now? And the sheriff's out there with four of his buddies in my backyard. They've been hitting golf balls down in the woods, and they didn't realize someone was building their house down there, and the lady was afraid they were going to hit the house or, more importantly, hit their kids," he says.
Looking For The Toughest Assignment
But when Seth turned 17, he made a big decision. Seth was looking to become more serious and straighten up.
His dad had told him to go to school and get a job, or join the military. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had a lot to do with Seth's decision to join the Marines. He told everyone he wanted to the toughest assignment he could get.
His stepmother, Tiffany Sharp, was scared about the whole thing. She tried to talk him out of it.
"Yes, I said go into another one, or go into the Navy, go out in a boat, and that way you're not Marines, infantry. And I was like 'I just don't know what I'm gonna do with this youngin.' But, you know, that's where his heart was," she says.
After basic training, his family says Seth matured in a hurry. He got engaged. His fiance was able to get a big smile out of him in all of the pictures he took with her.
Those pictures of Seth, with his strong jaw, steely blue eyes, and big smile, are on the Sharp's kitchen table. Beside the photos are newspaper reports about his death, letters from well wishers, and the flag that draped their son's coffin when his body was returned home from Afghanistan.
John Sepulvado reports for Georgia Public Radio.