Heroes never forgotten
Families and survivors gathered to honor their work 10 years ago in the Battle of Ramadi.
David Swanson is an Inquirer photographer who was embedded with U.S. Marines during the Battle of Ramadi.
Along San Mateo Drive, hundreds of Marines in dress blues lined the road, standing at attention and saluting the Gold Star families of the Battle of Ramadi.
It's been 10 years since April 6, 2004, for the surviving Marines and Navy corpsmen, and families of Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, known as the Magnificent Bastards. But neither the day, nor those lost in the battle, has been forgotten.
Lt. Col. Rob Weiler was Weapons Company commanding officer then. Addressing the gathering last Sunday, his voice tightened as he recalled the battle. He used military terms from that time and place, including Porky, Raider, Reaper, Sledgehammer, Easy Street, Race Track, that brought back memories, and Marine "yut-yuts" and laughs from the attendees.
He also read messages from Sgt. Maj. James Booker, currently stationed in Afghanistan, and Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, commanding in Japan, to the several hundred veterans and families gathered at a remembrance ceremony at Camp Pendleton on the Southern California coast.
"Ten years ago today, the Battle of Ramadi commenced in earnest. April 6, 2004, started like every other day as our men executed patrols within sector, relieving security posts, sweeping routes for IEDs, thinking along lines of peace and stability, not street fighting," he said. "Although the Magnificent Bastards had taken some tough casualties in the weeks preceding this fateful day, nothing prepared us for the catastrophe that would kick off heavy combat in what has become Iraq's most notorious city. More American servicemen have been killed in Ramadi than any other city in 12 years of war in Iraq or Afghanistan."
That Tuesday in 2004, a clear, windless day in Al Anbar province, 11 Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed during a well-coordinated ambush. Fighting continued until Saturday, when the Marines pushed back, hard. While millions around the world were celebrating resurrection, that Easter Sunday also saw a memorial service in the Combat Outpost hangar for those who were killed.
By the end of their seven-month deployment, the battalion, once 900 strong, saw 34 killed and 269 wounded. In the week-long Battle of Ramadi, it's been estimated that 250 insurgents were killed.
Standing at the back during the ceremony, in a dark suit and green tie, was Kelly D. Royer. He had been Echo Company's captain when they hit the sand in March 2004. He stood in the back for a reason. Hesitant if he should attend the ceremony, Royer did not want to be a distraction to the Gold Star families. He had been relieved of command for "low morale" six days before leaving their combat deployment.
Sean Schickel was the interim CO who would lead Echo Company home. Ten years later, he organized a Saturday beach party for any and all, Marines and families.
At San Onofre State Beach, amid the DJ'd music and smell of Marlboros, beer upon beers were cracked and quenched by now mostly thirty-somethings. Sporting sunglasses and tattoos, they shared stories, laughed heartily, and hugged with intensity in the late afternoon light.
Ramon Barron, 30, from Echo Company, walked across the sand and through the picnic tables on a mission. He introduced himself to Gold Star mom Marie Ellen Carman, whose son, Lance Cpl. Benjamin R. Carman, had been killed on the first day of fighting.
"Mrs. Carman, I'm Ramon Barron. I served with your son. I was his squad leader. I've had so many that I have been in charge of that have been injured or killed."
Barron started crying.
He wanted to explain how her son fought and died.
Carman embraced and comforted him, and she quoted Hebrews 9:27: "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."
Before the afternoon beach party, six Marines and a Navy corpsman had climbed First Sergeants Hill, partially in remembrance of their time at Camp Pendleton, but also to see whether they could still do it. One Marine turned around; another lost his breakfast halfway up what is sometimes a 45-degree grade. At the summit, he decided not to drink the Budweiser he had purchased at the PX and carried up to celebrate the roughly 800-foot climb. He left it unopened near a huge rusting blue anchor that 2/4 Marines had lugged up 10 years ago.
Today, on the hill, wooden crosses line the horizon for the fallen from Pendleton. At the base of the crosses at this high pilgrimage overlooking the Pacific, bottles of beer and whiskey are left, some unopened, some spent, as well as sunglasses, dog tags, and other memorabilia.
Golf Company veteran Patrick Zimmerman drove the Marines back down the side of the hill, navigating the steep gravel road. Three feet to the left was a sheer drop. Death was a possibility. But Zimmerman, who lost his right eye in Iraq, maneuvered his white van with precision. The van, with the cot in the back, is also his home. It has a black-and-white Jolly Roger flag, the symbol of Golf Company, flying off the rear bumper.
At the conclusion of the ceremony in the Fifth Marines Memorial Garden on Sunday, 43 Purple Hearts were, one by one, solemnly placed on the shelf of a granite memorial listing the names of the dead from the 2004 and 2006/07 deployments. A brass band played "Waltzing Matilda," "Anchors Aweigh," and "Marines' Hymn."
After the memorial service, Marie Ellen Carman, her daughter Amelia, and her grandson Isaac went to look at one of the 43 boots, rifles, and helmets on display. They stopped at the one that had a dog tag with the name Benjamin R. Carman impressed on it. He was born Feb. 9, 1984, in Jefferson, Iowa.
There was a luncheon after, held outdoors. As tables were cleaned and all but a few had left, Kelly Royer stood off to the side. He commented how surreal it was that 10 years had passed so quickly. Dozens of former Marines, who had once been in his charge, gradually approached him and thanked him for coming.
Marie and Amelia Carman also came over. When they said that Ramon Barron had given them some of the details of Benjamin's death, Royer was able to provide a few more.
Then the Gold Star mom and the former Marine officer embraced.
"It was my honor to meet the mother who loaned her warrior to us, so that we could accomplish our mission in Ramadi," Royer said later. "This event was my homecoming."
It was noted by many that "Taps" was not played at the ceremony. Nor was there a three-rifle volley salute. And there seemed to be fewer tears openly shed than at previous 2/4 gatherings.
But the tears did flow, on Sunday. In the hotels' parking lots, as folks headed back to places like Freemont, Flagstaff, Chula Vista, Tracy, Santa Clara, Jefferson, Green Bay, Delano, Greensboro, Buffalo, and Philadelphia.
Explore David Swanson's video and photographic accounts of his two weeks in 2004 patrolling with Echo Company in Iraq: www.inquirer.com/ramadi