Al Asad Airbase, Iraq
Charlie Company started preparing for yesterday’s memorial service more than a week ago. Junior Marines at Firm Base 1 gathered digital photographs on thumb drives of the three Marines killed in the February 6 IED explosion – Corporal Orville Gerena, 21 years old; Lance Corporal David Parr, 22 years old; and Private First Class Jacob Spann, 21 years old. Goofy or tasteless photos, ones with the guys waggling their tongues, flipping victory signs, or otherwise bugging out for the camera, didn’t pass muster with the Company’s senior enlisted man, First Sergeant Michael Wootten, and the officers selecting the portraits to be displayed at the ceremony.
Charlie Company staffers laid out the plan for the simple service last week while running final patrols through Hit and briefing the follow-on unit, a US Army battalion, with intell. and information on the town and the surrounding areas. Wootten rehearsed Charlie Company’s Marines for hours the day before and the morning of the service on this featureless patch of desert, called Camp Lima, here at the edge of Al Asad. His goals were flawless timing, technique, and precision.
The four Marines of the color guard marched until they moved as one. A staff sergeant drilled the seven Marines firing the 21-gun salute. “Concentrate. Say the ditty. Be intense and you’ll get it all together,” he told them. “One and two and three and four and grab and pull and push and grab,” the Marines chanted, narrating each motion of the process as they performed it. “One and pull and one and port.”
“Movement on both Ps.” the staff sergeant told them. “You’re gonna pull the trigger on P, you’re gonna go back to port on the P of port.”
“With a magazine, blank rounds – Load!” shouted another instructor. “Stand by. Ready. Aim. Fire!” Crack, crack, crack, crack – four distinct reports from their M-16s. Not good enough. The Marines practiced, with and without ammo, until each of the three volleys they fired sounded like a single shot.
Wootten patiently fine-tuned the movements of the grunts arranging the symbolic displays of the dead Marines’ personal gear – M-16 rifle, helmet, boots, and dog tags. Plant the M-16’s bayonet in the sandbag just so and make sure it’s steady and secure, he told them. “Take your time, “ he advised. It’s not a race.
I feared Charlie Company’s officers and senior enlisted men would drill the spontaneity and emotion out of these young Marines before the actual event. The days were cold, the rehearsals long, and the activities repetitive. Turns out, the grunts were just saving up.
Captain Dave Handy, Charlie Company’s commanding officer, opened the memorial. “March on the colors!” The four Marines of the color guard - one bearing the American flag, one carrying the 22d MEU’s colors, and the other two flanking them with M-16s - glided across the hard, damp sand in unison. The Star Spangled Banner played over a crackly PA. The men stopped in front of a single Humvee parked at the center of the field and then pivoted to face a plywood board that had been propped against the vehicle’s grill. Three large color photographs of the dead Marines, relaxed and informal snaps of them in their battle gear, the selects from the First Sergeant’s edit, were mounted on the board.
“They earned the title Marine and they went forward into harm’s way because their country asked them to,” Battalion Landing Team Commander Lt. Colonel Drew Smith said from the no-frills wooden podium. “Corporal Orville Gerena, Lance Corporal David Parr, Private First Class Jacob Spann. US Marines. Good grunts. Loved their families. Served with BLT 1/2. Patrolled the streets of Hit. Put others before themselves. Brave in the face of danger. Cheerful in all weathers. Brothers in arms. They dared all and sacrificed all in the service of their country.”
“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them," read Corporal Daniel Castaneda, from Revelations 2. "They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
Next, three peers of the dead Marines spoke. Haltingly, these three young men, who are not yet very well acquainted with death, offered eulogies that they had committed to scraps of paper. Lance Corporal Jeffrey McCarty gave the first, for Gerena, his team leader and friend.
“Sometimes he would sit there with me on post, even know he didn’t have to. Whether it be just talking about life, love or food, or just to shoot the shit. He was always there to listen.”
Lance Corporal Kevin Herren spoke about Parr, a member of his team. “The only regret that I have is not knowing him more on a personal level than what I did.”
Lance Corporal Damon Broussard, a serious and thoughtful Louisianan who at 28 is much older than the average LCpl., gave an evocative eulogy for Spann. “I was his team leader when he first got to the fleet and worked with him until the moment he was killed. I won’t stand here and tell you he was my best friend, but I will tell you that I really did like the man, and I respected him.”
“I watched him take shape, from an uncertain boot to a confident Marine…. It isn’t easy, and it takes courage to sit in a turret, partially exposed, and patrol the streets that are ridden with IEDs. Posting security on the roof isn’t the most sought after job, either, but it is necessary, and he did it no matter what came down on us and stayed motivated no matter what. Especially as cold and windy as it was. We would get off of post frozen, toes so cold we could barely walk down the stairs. And we would sit in front of the heater and talk about our plans for when we got home, plans that he will never have the chance to fulfill.”
“I will see him guarding the pearly gates, in the perimeter of God’s great kingdom. And when God calls upon all fallen Marines to fight the final battle between heaven and hell, Spann will be senior to you and me, and I will be privileged to serve under him as he served under me.” Broussard, sniffling and red-eyed, handed the microphone to another grunt, who read the Marine’s Prayer. It ends: “Guide me with light to truth and grant me wisdom by which I may understand the answer to any prayer. Amen.”
First Sergeant Wootten recited the Final Roll Call, beginning with an attenuated list of Marines present. “Here, First Sergeant!” each responded. “Corporal Gerena!” Wootten read. No response. “Corporal Gerena,” he repeated. “Corporal GERENA!” As Wootten snapped to attention, four Marines carrying gear representative of Gerena’s marched slowly and smartly to the sandbags laid out in front of the photos. They performed their ceremonial duties, as instructed and drilled, accompanied by The Marine Hymn. Same thing for Parr, then Spann.Each of the seven-round volleys fired during the 21-gun salute sounded like one big bullet piercing the silence – again, just as rehearsed.
The ceremony ended in just under an hour. The Marines of the BLT, over 1000 of them, filed by the displays, saluting as they passed. After that, grunts, in pairs, groups, and singly, approached the sandbags and kneeled. They prayed, snapped photographs, or just paused, closer to the spirit of the three dead men. “I’d prefer not any cameras on me,” Lt. Col. Smith said as he walked by. I turned away and turned off the camera.
The routine continues for BLT Marines here at Al Asad. An hour or so ago busloads of Marines were hauled over to Navy dentists for their periodic exams. Others have pulled working parties of some sort – a handful of Marines digs a hole outside the Weapons Company tent, either for punitive or practical reasons. Several are on fire watch, making sure the circus-type tents they sleep in don't burn down. The lucky folks are up on Mainside at Subway, Burger King, the Base Exchange, or the AT&T Phone Center. I’m going to catch the shuttle bus and join them up there, maybe even have an expensive latte at the “Green Beans” coffee franchise and just collect my thoughts.