Ohio Capital Says Farewell to Fallen Marines

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Six Marine reservists based in Columbus, Ohio, are among the dead as U.S. forces mount an offensive against insurgents in Iraq. The funeral of Cpl. Dustin A. Derga, 24, underlines the impact on the Ohio capital. Tom Borgerding of member station WOSU reports.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Today, US forces are continuing their assault on Iraqi insurgents in towns and villages along the Euphrates River near Iraq's border with Syria. The campaign, called Operation Matador, is the largest US-led offensive since the siege on Fallujah last fall. The military says it has killed or captured more than 100 guerrilla fighters over this past week. It is also reporting that nine Marines have been killed. Operation Matador has taken a heavy toll on a Marine Reserve unit based in Columbus, Ohio. All members of a rifle platoon were either killed or wounded early in the fighting. Tom Borgerding of member station WOSU in Columbus reports.

(Soundbite of traffic noise)

TOM BORGERDING reporting:

Friday night rush hour in Columbus' eastern suburbs is nearly over, as nearly 100 mourners line a two-lane highway in front of the Dwayne Spence Funeral Home. They're awaiting the arrival of a flag-draped coffin with the remains of 24-year-old Marine Corporal Dustin Derga. Among the crowd, Vietnam veteran and American Legion Post Commander David England.

Commander DAVID ENGLAND (American Legion): When we found out that Corporal Derga had been killed, we put our flag at half-staff, and it will remain so until after he's buried.

BORGERDING: In two days of fighting in Iraq, Derga's rifle squad was decimated; six were killed, 15 were wounded. News of the deaths and injuries began filtering through central Ohio communities last Sunday. England says for him, this community turnout stirs personal memories.

Cmdr. ENGLAND: I experienced it before. Not quite like this, but a lot of fellows that were in my unit were killed in various ways. And, you know, it strikes at your heart, especially when it's one of your own.

BORGERDING: High school teacher Kenneth Schneider waited, too. He taught Derga construction engineering. He says students and teachers at Pickerington High School were stunned as details of the multiple deaths became known.

Mr. KENNETH SCHNEIDER (Teacher, Pickerington High School): And I think it's one of those things--when it happens to someone this young that's not that far removed from the school, it brings it home a lot harder, and I think it makes it more real than just something you're watching on TV occasionally or whatever. And it's--it was kind of a solemn moment there when that happened.

BORGERDING: At the Reserve unit's headquarters on the city's south side, preparations continue for the arrival of more coffins. Volunteer Isolda Zirk(ph) has a son serving in Iraq. She says that helps her empathize with all the military mothers. Her sole task is to comfort grieving families.

Ms. ISOLDA ZIRK (Volunteer): They want to call and just cry. I let them cry. I just want to make sure that they have somebody they can talk with, especially from mother to mother. And so--and they e-mail me, so I have been extremely busy the last week just trying to help the families.

BORGERDING: When not comforting families coping with death, Zirk spends time advising military families struggling with their fears.

Ms. ZIRK: So count your blessings and pray for those that need help, and the parents and the ones that are injured. And other than that, there's nothing else we can do or say because we are not in control.

BORGERDING: Prior to its current assignment, the Columbus Marine Reserve unit was deployed for combat in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm. It has been in Iraq for little more than two months, and is scheduled to stay for 10 months more. Many towns cope with losing a soldier or Marine due to fighting in Iraq; few have had to try to come to grips with losing six in just one week. For NPR News, I'm Tom Borgerding in Columbus.

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