Marine Killed In Marjah Remembered
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
On February 19th, NPR aired a report from the front lines of the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan. That report, by NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, included tape from a firefight, and the death of a young Marine.
That Marine was 23-year-old Lance Corporal Alejandro J. Yazzie, a Navajo from Rock Point, Arizona. Yazzie was the 11th Navajo to die in combat since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started. His funeral was Friday in Farmington, New Mexico.
Here is Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl.
GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL: The funeral was held in a cavernous and dimly lit auditorium at the Farmington Civic Center, where nearly 1,000 people gathered to pay their respects.
Several Marines, dressed in full military regalia, sat on the stage in front of Yazzie's flag-draped coffin. And for the entire three-hour ceremony, their eyes never left his casket.
After the service, dozens of Harley-Davidson riders led Yazzie's funeral procession out of town.
(Soundbite of motorcycles)
KOHL: Many were flying flags from the back of their bikes, representing the United States, the Navajo Nation and the Marine Corps.
Before the funeral, Yazzie's family talked about the young Marine.
Ms. DEIDRE ETSIDIE(ph): He didn't really tell us he enlisted. He just came out one day and told us: I'm going to make you guys proud.
KOHL: Deidre Etsidie is Alejandro Yazzie's sister-in-law.
Ms. ETSIDIE: The whole family is proud of him. And that's kind of one of the ideas of why he went and joined the Marines, is to protect the family.
KOHL: And Yazzie's family continues to grow even in his absence. His wife, 20-year-old Kalandra Ronehorse-Yazzie, is nearly five months' pregnant.
Ms. KALANDRA RONEHORSE-YAZZIE: He wrote letters to me when he first deployed there. He would always talk about the baby. He would say, I still can't believe I'm going to be a daddy.
KOHL: Yazzie grew up in a very traditional household, in one of the most remote areas of the Navajo Nation. He spent much of his time riding bulls and running through canyons with his three brothers. Deidre Etsidie says growing up on the reservation was good training for the Marines.
Ms. ETSIDIE: The survival skill that they taught them in the Marine Corps is, like, oh, I already know how to do that. I know how to start a fire without certain things, you know? It's like - basically, living at grandma's house with no electricity and no water, you know? He adapted pretty well.
KOHL: Just before his death, Yazzie told NPR reporter Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about his family. Yazzie even borrowed Nelson's satellite phone to call his wife on Valentine's Day, but he couldn't get through. Two days later, he was killed by gunfire.
Kalandra says finding out about her husband's death was just the first shockwave. A second wave came when the family learned tape of the battle was broadcast on National Public Radio.
Ms. RONEHORSE-YAZZIE: It hit me really hard. And I think it was too graphic to actually put it out there and people asking me, did you hear it? Did you hear it? It broke me down.
KOHL: Traditional Navajos believe images of the dead are intensely private. Deidre Etsidie says to use them in a newspaper or on the Internet, someplace where they'll eventually be thrown away, is akin to disposing of a person's spirit.
Ms. ETSIDIE: We're still in shock, you know, that this made it out there like that, for everybody to hear.
KOHL: But in the end, Kalandra says she's glad her husband was interviewed right before his death. Now, she says, the whole world knows his last thoughts were of her. That was made even more apparent a few days before his funeral, when Kalandra received one final letter from Afghanistan.
Ms. RONEHORSE-YAZZIE: In that letter, he said, I know you're happy. He goes, I know you two, you and the baby, consider me as your hero. I'll be back, I promise.
KOHL: Alejandro Yazzie's funeral procession traveled nearly 100 miles - from Farmington, New Mexico, to Sweetwater, Arizona, where he was buried near his family's home. All along the way, cars were pulled off on the side of the road, hazard lights flashing in honor of the fallen Marine.
For NPR News, I'm Gillian Farris Kohl.