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Lynn Township Marine is killed when struck by grenade in Iraq
As a boy of 16, Brandon Van Parys plastered a red "Semper Fi" Marine Corps sticker to his third-floor bedroom window and dreamed of avenging the wound inflicted on America by 9/11 terrorists.
Four years later, as a man of 20, he was a full-fledged Marine, honed by months of hard training into one of those steely-eyed warriors you see staring out from recruitment brochures.
He looked tough, and he was. But on Monday, just three weeks into his first tour in Iraq, a grenade streaked out of nowhere, hit him in the side, ricocheted into the door of a nearby Humvee and exploded.
Lance Cpl. Van Parys -- a 2005 Northwestern Lehigh High School graduate who enlisted in November of that year -- died instantly.
"He wanted to do his part for his country to avenge 9/11," said his stepmother, Tammy Van Parys, red-eyed from crying Wednesday but fairly buoyant with pride as she remembered the lanky, dark-haired youth who loved fishing, hunting, horseplay with his two younger brothers and listening to The Offspring, his favorite band.
The terror attacks "threatened their whole world," she said, framing 9/11 as a shattering and defining moment for Brandon and his peers. "It took what they knew and shook it up."
Brandon Van Parys had trained as a field radio operator but in Iraq he became part of a security detail serving Lt. Col. Jim McGraft, the battalion commander, in Al Anbar province. He was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine
Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force.
On Monday, Van Parys' unit set out to investigate a tip that the enemy was smuggling supplies across the Euphrates River into a secured area, said his father, Alan, recounting the attack as related by McGraft. They discovered the crossing point and were securing it when they came under fire.
Van Parys, the only one killed in the attack, is the second Northwestern Lehigh graduate to die in Iraq. Army Capt. Mark Resh, a 1996 graduate, was killed Jan. 28 when his helicopter crashed during combat in Najaf.
Two Marine sergeants arrived at the Van Parys' Lynn Township home Monday to break the news. It was the moment the Van Parys had dreaded since the moment their son announced his desire to join the Marines.
"We really didn't want him to join. No, no, not during wartime," Tammy Van Parys said, recalling how she and her husband had deferred their son's decision temporarily by buying him a new truck.
"But he wasn't happy," Alan Van Parys said. "We could tell he was forming a resentment toward us for standing in his way. A parent can hold back a child so much."
"It was a conviction in his heart," his wife added. "You can't change that."
On Wednesday, the telephone in the Van Parys' house rang incessantly as the family huddled in the kitchen where photos of Brandon -- as a Marine, a New Tripoli junior firefighter and a first- time fisherman -- crowded a countertop. The television was tuned to a Philadelphia news station as the family anticipated the airing of a news segment devoted to his life and sacrifice.
Alan Van Parys said his son's younger brothers, Christopher, 11, and Daniel, 6, were doing well but staying with friends for the time being.
"Christopher firmly believes Brandon's spirit is here among us and we can talk to him any time," he said.
The last time the family saw Van Parys was over Christmas. And the last they heard from him was 15 hours before he died, when he sent an e-mail thanking them for a care package of Twizzlers, Swedish Fish, Tastykakes, soup and a toothbrush. He also told them he needed contact lenses because his prescription inserts did not fit into his battlefield glasses.
Van Parys' decision to enlist in the Marines had taken his friends by surprise. For a long time, he seemed headed for a career in law enforcement, and had studied that subject at the Lehigh Career Technical Institute.
Felix Wolhfahrt, 19, Van Parys' LCTI classmate, said he didn't know Van Parys had enlisted until a week before he left for training at Camp Lejeune.
"It shocked me because he didn't tell us about it, but when he felt strongly about something he just kept it inside," said Wolhfahrt, standing outside the Van Parys' Lentz Street home.
Michael Sell, 20, of Salisbury Township, said Van Parys was "a happy guy, but he was always serious. It was hard to make him smile."
"He was a brother growing up," Sell added. "Whatever he did, I did."
Van Parys' body was to be flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The family plans to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery. He will probably be mourned at two viewings, one in Lehigh County and one in Montgomery County where his mother, Catherine Hearn, lives.
A fund in Van Parys' name has been established at New Tripoli Bank. Donations, his father said, "will help ease the pain and suffering for injured Marines or Marines that need supplies -- Brandon's comrades."