Marine Division in Calif. Mourns Its Losses

The 1st Marine Division held a memorial service Thursday to remember the 420 soldiers, sailors, Marines and British soldiers who lost their lives while serving with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq. Russell Lewis from member station KPBS reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to Camp Pendleton, California. No US military unit has suffered more deaths in Iraq than the 1st Marine expeditionary force based there. Yesterday the Marine Corps honored more than 400 fallen service members who had ties to the unit. Russell Lewis of member station KPBS in San Diego has more.

RUSSELL LEWIS reporting:

There were too many names to read aloud, so Marine Sergeant Major Wayne Bell tallied the dead by regiment.

Sergeant Major WAYNE BELL (US Marine Corp): Fifth Marine Regiment: 75 Marines, one sailor killed in action.

LEWIS: It was a somber day and the gray, overcast skies added to the mood. The crowd of Marines and teary-eyed family members sat in front of 18 rifles pushed into the turf. The guns symbolized each of the regiments that lost Marines, sailors and soldiers. A pair of boots, combat helmet and dog tags adorned every rifle. A bagpiper played to honor six British soldiers who died while serving with the Marines.

(Soundbite of bagpipes)

LEWIS: Major General Richard Natonski commands the 1st Marine Division. In his speech, he said the deaths happened in key battles like Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq's dangerous Sunni triangle.

Major General RICHARD NATONSKI (US Marine Corp): They served courageously, honoring their commitment to their units, their mission, their services and their countries, even in the face of danger and death.

LEWIS: The first Marine division is a unit of 20,000 men and women. It contains infantry platoons and squadrons of fighter planes and attack helicopters. The division is often called upon to do some of the most dangerous and bloody combat. It's a mission Emily Dieruf fully supports. She traveled to the memorial from Kentucky. She wiped away a tear as she remembered her husband, Corporal Nick Dieruf. He died in Fallujah last year.

Mrs. EMILY DIERUF (Marine Widow): And it is so important to give family closure and honor those that have fallen to serve their country and so we can enjoy our simple freedom. And that's why I'm here.

LEWIS: After the service, Nora Brown(ph) clutched her nephew's dog tags. Lance Corporal Andrew Nowacki died just a few months ago in an ambush. She struggles with the loss.

Ms. NORA BROWN (Aunt): I have my own personal political opinions about this, but mine aren't what's important. It's my nephew's that were important, and he believed what he was doing was helpful to the Iraqis. He loved the children and thought they were going to be the future of the country and the hope for the country and that's what's important. He died believing he was doing the right thing.

LEWIS: The ceremony was punctuated with music and a 21-gun salute. For many Marines, it was the fifth or sixth memorial they've attended. Many of them are going back to Iraq for a third time in just a few months. For NPR News, I'm Russell Lewis in San Diego.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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