For the Marines at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, it was a ritual that had been repeated too often.
More than 200 mourners crowded into the station's tiny chapel Wednesday to pay homage to their four comrades-in-arms who died last week in a helicopter crash on Okinawa, echoing a service held just 10 weeks earlier for Tustin-based victims of a similar helicopter disaster in May.
Capt. Neal T. Lippy, 27; 1st Lt. Charles C. Alsworthy Jr., 30; Sgt. Timothy C. Walker, 25, and Cpl. Charles R. Tyler Jr., 21, died last Friday when their helicopter, a CH-53D Sea Stallion, went down on an Okinawa hillside. The aircraft, which was assigned to the Futenma Marine Base, crashed approximately 44 miles northeast of Naha, the Japanese island's capital.
On Wednesday afternoon, the families of Lippy and Alsworthy and colleagues of all four men filled the darkened chapel and spilled out onto folding chairs on the chapel lawn. The only bright touches in the otherwise somber service were the sprays of red, yellow and pink flowers that adorned the altar, the blood-red Marine Corps flag and the summer dresses of women scattered between the uniformed Marines.
Loriann Lippy, Capt. Lippy's widow, cried softly as she was escorted into the chapel after nearly all the other guests were seated. Her face was covered by dark blue netting that adorned her hat, and in her hand she clutched a rosary.
Those present, with heads bowed, heard Cmdr. R.B. Needham, the station chaplain, speak of death, resurrection, and service to God and country as a shaft or two of sunlight filtered through the chapel's curtained windows.
"When death comes, we all have a sense of our inadequacy as we say to one who has lost a loved one, 'Don't sorrow,' " the chaplain said. "But the glory we have is that this sorrow is not a hopeless one. It is a sorrow that has a comfort in it, and it is a sorrow that does not last forever. That glory is found in the certainty of resurrection. . . .
"I hope as you leave, your hearts will be touched with thanksgiving for men such as these, who are willing to put their duty before their lives."
In his 15 years as chaplain to the Marines at the Tustin base, Needham has performed "too many" such services, he said, "although one time is too often."
But the past 10 weeks have been especially intense for Needham, for this is the second such service in that time. In addition to the Marines who died last Friday, 11 Tustin-based Marines were among those killed in the May 6 crash of a Sea Stallion helicopter that plunged into the sea off southern Japan, killing all 17 aboard.
Including the 15 men killed in the May and July crashes, 30 Tustin-based Marines have died in CH-53D Sea Stallion or CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashes since 1981, a Marine spokeswoman said. The helicopters are manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Co., a unit of United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Conn.
"I'm the one who gets tasked with this (officiating over such deaths), and anybody who thinks death and sorrow are easy has missed the obvious," Needham said after the service. "We in this country don't begin to realize the sacrifices these young men and women make. I think we owe them a debt of gratitude."
"In the phrase, 'military service,' service has the same root word as 'servant,' " Needham told the somber group. "And I thank God for the men and women who are willing to be servants to God, their families and their countries.
"As you leave this place, I encourage you to remember that God has encouraged us to serve one another," he said. "Our service to Him and to one another will be the more exalted and noble if we will remember our loved ones. In that light, they will not have died in vain."
The prayers and hymns ended, and ceremonial flags were given to Lippy's wife and Alsworthy's father by two young Marines in dress blues who softly told them, "On behalf of a grateful nation, we present this flag to you as a token of our esteem and gratitude for the service of your loved one."
Taps played. The tiny chapel emptied. The only sounds were the stifled sobs of the young widow, seated in the front pew, her head bowed.