Eric Montgomery always pictured himself coming home from war in triumph, arm-in-arm with his big brother, fellow Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Montgomery. Brian was his idol, his boyhood protector and his barracks mate in the desert of western Iraq.
The two did fly home together last week, but it was the worst journey of Eric’s young life. The plane that carried him also carried the body of his brother, who died Aug. 1 at age 26 during an ambush that killed all six members of Brian’s sniper patrol.
It was left to Eric, at age 21, to define his brother’s life and legacy. As he stood stiffly in his Marine dress blue uniform here Wednesday, he saluted Brian’s flag-draped coffin and delivered a passionate eulogy to more than 600 mourners.
“Thank you, Brian, for bringing me home,” he said at a church funeral service; his brother’s year-old son, Alexander, sat in his mother’s lap, wearing his own tiny Marine uniform. “That’s all that mattered to you.”
Lance Cpl. Eric Montgomery shares a heavy burden with dozens of grieving families in Ohio and across the country this month. As the casualty rate escalates in Iraq, Americans like the Montgomerys are struggling to hold their lives together while honoring the sacrifice of their fallen loved ones in uniform.
In the space of just six days, Brian Montgomery and 15 other Marines from an Ohio reserve battalion died in Iraq. Since the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment -- known in northern Ohio as the “Three Twenty-Five” -- arrived in Iraq in March, it has lost 47 men in combat.
The war in Iraq is unlike any in American history. Citizen-soldiers from the reserves and National Guard have been plunged into combat in numbers unseen since World War II and make up 43% of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Of the 1,840 American military deaths, about a quarter were those of reservists or guardsmen. Of the 45 Americans killed this month, 35 belonged to the reserves or Guard.
Reports of American deaths have seemed especially relentless of late. Less than a week after the Ohio deaths, seven National Guardsmen from Pennsylvania died in Iraq in three days.
When the time came to bury Brian Paul Montgomery, it was not just family and friends who honored his memory. Thousands in Mentor and two adjoining towns where Brian grew up and worked lined the funeral route. They stood in the punishing midday sun for more than an hour, saluting, waving flags and wiping away tears as the procession rolled past.
Firefighters lined up in dress uniforms outside firehouses. Workers at car dealerships and pharmacies left their air-conditioned posts and crammed the sidewalks. Retirement home residents rolled their wheelchairs to the curb. Veterans in scraps of old uniforms saluted.
Postal workers and police officers halted during their shifts and stood at attention. Swimming pools emptied as mothers in bathing suits stood with dripping children, hands over their hearts. Sunburned construction workers tied a flag to a backhoe and stood, drenched in sweat, their hard hats over their hearts.
High school football players, retirees and homeowners unfurled the red-and-yellow Marine Corps colors and hundreds of American flags. They held handmade posters that read “Thank you, Brian” and “God Bless Brian” and “A True American Hero -- Brian Montgomery.”
At the church service, Brian’s father, Paul, broke down as he tried to describe how his son had always put others before himself. He told how Brian had been suspended in high school for fighting after he defended a girl who had been slapped by a boy. He described how the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted his oldest son to join the Marine Corps Reserves.
“Brian had a deep conviction that he needed to protect his country,” his father said.
Some families of reservists killed in action have criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the war. But Paul Montgomery said he did not, nor had Brian. “We both believe it’s the right war at the right time,” he said.
When he telephoned Brian in Iraq, his son always assured him that he was on “light duty,” far from combat.
“Don’t worry, Dad, I’m coming home,” Brian would say.
Actually, Brian -- a mortar man by training -- had volunteered for dangerous sniper duty near Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in violent Anbar province.
His father knew the truth.
“I’d say: ‘Keep lying to me, Brian. We can talk about it when you get home,’ ” he said.
As he spoke, the father was overcome. He sobbed. Finally, he managed to choke out, “I know Brian’s in heaven because he died in hell.”
Brian’s widow, Pam, did not weep as she spoke.
In a clear, strong voice, she described how she knew she would marry Brian the day she met him. “You never believe in love at first sight until it happens to you,” she told the mourners.
She spoke of Brian’s habit of showing off his Marine tattoos in bars.
She spoke of his devotion to their son, whose first birthday came just two days after his father’s death.
She recited a prayer she wrote to honor her husband and every Marine serving in Iraq.
“In order for me to get through this,” she said finally, “honor all our service members every day. If you see one, salute them. Or stop in the recruiting office, or the VFW, and thank them.”
Brian’s family honored him with a montage of photos mounted at a funeral home in nearby Willoughby, where the Montgomery home is marked with two blue stars for the two brothers.
On display was a faded blue Cleveland hospital card announcing the birth of a baby boy, Brian Paul, on June 8, 1979. There was a studio photo of Brian and Eric, two grinning grade-schoolers, and a shot of Paul walking young Brian to grade school. More snapshots traced the arc of Brian’s life, from toothless infant to young soccer player to bespectacled adolescent to tall, powerfully built recruit with a high-and-tight Marine haircut.
With the photos were handwritten tributes: “Hero,” “Marine,” “Father,” “Husband,” “Brave,” “Big Heart.”
There were pictures from Iraq: Brian goofing with his Marine buddies, Brian in the desert, Brian posing with his automatic rifle, looking strong and indomitable in his tan battle-dress uniform.
It was the sight of Brian in his Marine dress blues that inspired Eric to follow him into the reserves. Eric had always looked up to his brother. Brian had fought all his battles for him in high school, Eric said, and Brian committed himself to protecting his younger brother while the two served with Weapons Company of the 3/25.
At the church service, Eric quoted his brother:
“ ‘I have a responsibility to Mom and Dad to get you home. I know you’ll take care of my wife and son if I don’t make it, so I have to get you home.’ ”
At their base camp outside Haditha, the brothers had long talks about family and country and service. Brian believed he was fighting to protect his family and fellow citizens. He once told his father that no American should have to board an airliner wondering whether it would arrive safely at its destination.
Eric quoted his brother again:
“ ‘Eric, if I fall, make sure my boy gets my dog tags and he knows what I was all about. And take care of my wife.’ ”
Eric feared that his brother had been killed in action on March 25 when members of Brian’s sniper team ran up to him and asked, “Did you hear about Brian?” In fact, Brian had scored the battalion’s first combat kills -- shooting three insurgents who had attempted to plant roadside bombs, Eric said.
“He sent all three of those guys to hell, where they belonged,” Eric said.
Now home consoling his sister-in-law and his parents, Eric said he was ordered not to return to Iraq because the unit was scheduled to return home next month. It is an order that has left him conflicted.
“I wish I was still with them, fighting the good fight,” he said. “I know my brother feels the same way.”
Before leaving Iraq, Eric made his buddies promise that they would track and kill the insurgents who took his brother from him. Last week, he said, the mother of a squad member called him to relay a message from Iraq: “ ‘We got [them].’ ”
“That meant the world to me, hearing that,” Eric said.
Someone asked him this week if his brother’s death was worth the sacrifice. “And I answered: He thought it was worth the sacrifice,” Eric said.
To honor his brother, Eric said, he will have himself tattooed with a message Brian had always intended to tattoo on his own body: “Never Left. Never Forgotten.”
And when he wakes up every morning, Eric said, “I thank my brother for getting me home.”
As he finished his eulogy, his face slick with sweat above his stiff Marine collar, Eric mentioned that he wanted to provide his brother in death with something he had never received in life: a standing ovation.
Everyone inside the church, in the central pews and in the cramped balcony above, rose and applauded for two full minutes. When it was over and the church echoed with soft sobs, Eric looked up and said, “Semper fi to an always faithful Marine.”
As the mourners filed outside into brilliant August sunshine, Lt. Col. Kevin Rush, the battalion’s rear commander in Ohio, stood beside a hearse. “That’s the finest eulogy I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.
The colonel spotted the father, Paul Montgomery, and went over to shake his hand. “Brian will always be a hero,” he told him.
An hour later, the funeral procession snaked into a cemetery. Among the six uniformed pallbearers of the Marine Color Guard was Eric Montgomery, a tall, slender figure with a narrow face and strong jaw beneath a white dress cap. The Montgomery family was presented with a Purple Heart and a ritually folded American flag.
At the gravesite of Lance Cpl. Brian Montgomery, the last hand to lower his casket into the rich earth of Ohio was that of the brother he had brought safely home.
Researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.