Small Indiana Town Remembers Fallen Marine

Marine Corporal Eric Lueken, 23, of Dubois, Ind., was killed last month during a combat operation in Iraq's Anbar province. Andrew Yeager of member station WNIN talks to the young Marine's fiancee, friends, and family about their remembrances.

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The small Southern Indiana town of Dubow is honoring the memory of Corporal Eric Lueken who was killed last month in Iraq. Some residents are taking part in an impromptu memorial which started the night the family heard the news. Andrew Yeager of member station WNIN in Evansville reports.

ANDREW YEAGAR reporting:

At the Lueken home small American flags protrude from the first yard along the roadside. Family and friends gather under a grove of pine trees in the back yard. Ericka Merkel was a friend of Eric Lueken's growing up. She was a cheerleader when he was a basketball player.

And they also worked together at the same restaurant in high school. Two years ago before leaving for Afghanistan, Eric stopped to say to goodbye to Merkel and a few months later on whim Merkel sent him an email just to check and see how he was doing.

Ms. ERICKA MERKEL (Friend): It just took that one email and it went from once a week, to twice a week, to three times a week, to everyday. So it was just that one little, I don't know.

Mr. YEAGAR: Merkel says that Eric Lueken told her that knowing she was waiting for him to come home was his motivation. She calls him the perfect guy. Her family loved him. He always had a smile on his face. And despite being overseas, he began sending flowers and poems.

Ms. MERKEL: He would send cards every once and a while just to let me know he was thinking about -- even though we talked five, ten times a day and text each other all day long, he would still, you know, let me know how much he cared, and that meant a lot. Meant a lot.

Mr. YEAGAR: Even before being back in the same country together, they begin to talk about marriage. When Lueken returned home for a visit the two were inseparable. Distance separate them once again when Eric went to Iraq. But they planned to get together at the Marine base in Hawaii after Lueken returned from Iraq in the fall.

Ms. MERKEL: He was debating if he wanted to reenlist or not. So we were going to start there and just see where it took him from there. So yeah, we had a future together.

Mr. YEAGAR: That future was cut abruptly short when the 23-year old was killed April 22 while on a combat operation in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. By all accounts, Eric Lueken was the kind of guy who could always pull a smile out of you. He loved to hunt and fish and was very outgoing. Bill Hochgesang, his high school basketball coach, says Eric was jokester, a cut-up, but when the ball went up in the air, it was all business.

Before one big game, Hochgesang remembers asking each player what he knew about his opponent. Most responded, he's a post player or he's strong inside player. Eric went last and he said...

Mr. BILL HOCHGESANG (Former High School Basketball Coach): Well, my player is a little too cocky for his own good. And you know, everybody busted out laughing, because that's Eric. You know, he's like, he didn't care if the guy could shoot or could handle the ball. He just knew that this kid was little cocky and he was going to put him in his place.

Mr. YEAGAR: His brother Brent said Eric Lueken talked about joining the Marines since grade school, but others in the family say they were surprised with his decision. Even his father Jake says he didn't know until he woke them up at 4:00 in the morning to tell them the news.

Mr. JAKE LUEKIN (Father): I said, when are you thinking about doing this? I thought maybe it would be a year or two. He said, I'm leaving in three weeks. Three weeks, and one day later I took him over to Ferdin(ph) and he got in the Marine Corps van and left. That's all I knew about it, just three weeks ahead.

Mr. YEAGAR: Now, three years later, Jake points to the campfire in the back yard. The family started it the night they found out Eric died. Jake says the Native Americans had a tradition where a fire would be started when someone went off to war, and it was kept burning until that man returned. The Luekens aren't the only ones tending this makeshift memorial. Friends and neighbors are supplying wood and tending the fire, until Eric Lueken's body returns to Dubow, Indiana.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager.

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