Pride, pain a year after deaths in Iraq
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
When word spread one year ago that 26 Hawai'i Marines and a sailor were killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, Marine families here huddled in grief and the state reacted in disbelief.
It was a crushing blow that came after eight Hawai'i Marines were killed by a suicide car bomb on Oct. 30, 2004, and 11 others were killed in Iraq — most in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah in November.
National Public Radio aired a program on how the state was coping. At the state Capitol, 28 pairs of combat boots and 28 M-16 rifles and helmets were arrayed in a sobering memorial to the chopper crash victims and another Hawai'i Marine who had been killed in Iraq.
Six Marines and soldiers were killed elsewhere on what remains the deadliest day of the Iraq war for U.S. forces.
One year later, memories tied to Jan. 26, 2005, are just as intense, but it's individually, in small groups, and in far-flung locales that the losses will be marked.
Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Bob Porter, who was on active duty for 30 years, and for the past 33 has worked at Marine Corps Base Hawai'i at Kane'ohe Bay, said it's the unit that bears the emotional burden of the loss.
That grief is getting dispersed. Many of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines who deployed to Iraq are now with other units, in Hawai'i and elsewhere, and the unit itself is in another fight — in Afghanistan.
Gunnery Sgt. Philip Myers, who is with the battalion in Afghanistan, said by e-mail, "All Marines who served with them in Iraq will no doubt take a moment to reflect on their loss in their own way. We have not forgotten those Marines."
Cpl. David Villasana, 22, who is from Sugar Land, Texas, and also has traded the desert of western Iraq for the mountains of Afghanistan, said there "are so many stories I could tell about many of the Marines who died that day."
He particularly recalls platoon leader 1st Lt. Dustin Shumney, 30, of Vallejo, Calif.
"Lt. Shumney always expected a lot out of us," Villasana said. "He would accept nothing but our best efforts at all times. His Marines would have followed him anywhere.
"I made it out of Iraq, but a lot of us didn't. The Marine Corps and the Marines don't forget about their fallen brothers. If, God willing, I make it out of Afghanistan and live to be an old man, I will always remember the Marines I served with who died not only in the crash, but also in the streets of Fallujah."
Memorials were held for the fallen Marines in Iraq, on the way out of the Middle East in Kuwait, and back at Kane'ohe Bay, and no specific memorial service is planned in Afghanistan or Hawai'i.
Col. Gregory A. Boyle, commanding officer, 3rd Marine Regiment, released this statement:
"3rd Marine Regiment, Marine Corps Base Hawai'i and the entire Marine Corps remembers those 26 Marines and one Sailor from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq one year ago today. They will always remain in our hearts and prayers as we continue to fight the Global War On Terrorism."
Boyle added, "We fondly remember how the local community and the people of Hawai'i rallied around the families of our fallen heroes. You welcomed our military families into your Ohana and showed your love and support. Your support has been overwhelming and 3rd Marine Regiment appreciates your thoughtfulness as we remember our fallen comrades."
HITTING THE ROAD
William and Kay Etterling, who live in Wheelersburg, Ohio, plan to calm the intensity of the anniversary by leaving town for the day.
"I don't know exactly where we'll go," William Etterling said. "I think we're just going to take off driving."
Almost daily the couple visits the grave of their son, 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Jonathan E. Etterling, who was killed in the helicopter crash.
"We check the flowers there. There's a good bit of wind here and I make sure the flowers don't blow off, and I spend some quiet time," William Etterling said.
The easy-going young man who wanted a career in law enforcement is buried less than two miles from the family home. He had left for boot camp two weeks after high school graduation in May 2002.
"We still tell Jonathan stories. It's not a taboo subject," William Etterling said. "But there are times it's very intense. We go back to that night (we were notified of his death), and it's, wow, still very vivid and I suspect it always will be."
The big CH-53E Super Stallion went down in a sandstorm at 1:20 a.m. near Rutbah, a corner of Iraq that touches the Syrian and Jordanian borders. Four crew members from California also were killed. The helicopter was taking the troops to western Iraq to help protect polling places for a Jan. 30 election.
An investigation found that the crew of the CH-53E became disoriented when weather turned bad, did not realize the helicopter was banking to the left, and flew the aircraft into the ground.
The battalion was nearing the end of its deployment in Iraq. When the crash occurred, Hawai'i Marines with a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter detachment were sent to pull the bodies out.
Jonathan Etterling had joined the Corps with three buddies. One of those three, who were not based in Hawai'i, was nearly killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq. Etterling told his parents he went through "hell" in Fallujah in the fall of 2004, seeing streets littered with bodies and killing more enemy fighters than he could count.
He also said the Marines were accomplishing a lot.
"I say that unashamedly, and I'm quoting him when I say that. He said, 'We're winning this war, Dad,' " William Etterling said.
The Ohio man said his community has been supportive of the family. The couple was invited to be in a Memorial Day parade, a scholarship was set up in Jonathan's name, and a big food drive for needy veterans was held in his honor.
Marines such as Staff Sgt. Newt Sanson from Kane'ohe Bay still stay in touch with the family, and the commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines sent the Etterlings a letter noting what was then the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, asking for their prayers and expressing sympathy for their loss.
Lance Cpl. Tyler Weed, 20, who is also in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, said it's important to mark the day because he knew many of the Marines who were killed in the crash.
"I dealt with all their casualty reports. It was the toughest job I ever had, running reports and knowing that those were my friends behind all those KIA (killed in action) documents," the Tacoma, Wash., man said by e-mail.
WHEN BUDDIES DIE
Lance Cpl. Brian C. Hopper, 21, of Wynne, Ark., was one of his closest friends among those who died.
"Me and Hopper would play cards all the time after missions, just as a way of easing the tension and unwinding after missions," Weed said. "He was a brave guy. All those Marines were."
At first, fellow Marines were hoping there might be survivors, but when word came that all had perished, it was rough, Weed said.
"Being in the Marine Corps is a dangerous job," he said. "We all put our lives on the line out here in combat. We all know there's a chance we won't come back. But still, it's a hard pill to swallow when your buddies die."
Porter, the retired sergeant major who was on Guadalcanal during World War II and served in Vietnam twice, said Marines are trained to take losses and keep fighting — but to never forget their own.
"That's what's drilled into us; we take care of each other," he said. "It hurts all the way (when buddies are killed), but we just roll over and keep going."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.