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Farewell to ‘Family’ : 400 Mourn Victims of Korean Copter Crash

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The “Home of the Fighting 5th Marines” was silent Thursday morning as more than 400 Marines and family members gathered at a memorial service at Camp Pendleton for the 19 men killed Monday morning in a helicopter crash in South Korea.

Current and former members of C Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, friends and relatives, and Marines who just came out of respect, filled the old base amphitheater and spilled out onto a gravel road at Camp Margarita, a section of the base where 15 of the Marines lived. The other four were based in Tustin.

“Let us remember and refocus on the lives of these young soldiers. . . . To render and give our honest and unashamed grief and respect that these our fallen dead deserve,” Lt. Cmdr. Felix Namocatcat said during the the ceremony.

Military officials are still investigating why the CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashed into a dry riverbed near P’ohang on South Korea’s eastern coast during military exercises with 34 Marines aboard.

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In addition to the dead, 15 men were injured in the crash. Thursday evening, 13 of them arrived at the Brooks Memorial Hospital burn center in San Antonio, Tex. Another victim, Lance Cpl. Ismael S. Gomez of Santa Ana, is expected to return to an Orange County hospital Saturday, officials said. The 15th man, whose name was not released, is being kept in South Korea temporarily for treatment of head injuries.

All of the Camp Pendleton Marines aboard the downed helicopter were from the 1st Battalion. That unit, more than 800 strong, left Camp Pendleton last month for a 6-month deployment in Japan.

At the San Diego County Marine base Thursday, a 21-gun salute and taps ended the 35-minute service of prayers, songs and remembrances.

"(The Marines) are in an inherently dangerous profession, and Charlie Company, by virtue of the things they had done in the past year and a half, had lived on the edge. And the culmination was the disaster in South Korea,” Col. Richard Rothwell said after the service.

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“We do these things not as a monolithic group, but we do these things as a family,” he said. “Our family is not the same as others--we’re not connected by genes or race--but it’s the profession of arms and the commitment to preserve our country. And our family is what brings us to these dangers; it is also what sustains us when these disasters take place.”

Rothwell, commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, said it was one of the most decorated teams in the Marine Corps, dating back to World War I.

Staff Sgt. Jorge Verdugo was a member of that regiment and was well remembered by fellow Marines.

“We went to Okinawa together in ’87, and we went to the gulf together,” said Cpl. Ted Thompson after he knelt before a wreath of white and red carnations and wept.

“He was a Marine, but he was also a good friend who I could share problems with and vice versa.”

After the service, about 100 Marines lined up to kneel before a rifle and a Marine helmet, a temporary memorial for the soldiers.

Kelly Webb, 17, of Encinitas also used the memorial as her way of convincing herself that her boyfriend, Lance Cpl. Ronald A. Johnson, 21, of Simi Valley, was really gone.

“I didn’t want to admit it at first but knew I had to when they read his name from the program,” she said. “He was getting out in a few months and was looking forward to spending more time with his younger sisters and his mother. He had lots of dreams and goals for the future.

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“He didn’t have to go (on the trip). He signed up to go. It wasn’t a requirement. It was just an unfortunate thing.”


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