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‘Everybody came home alive’

Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- The U.S. involvement in Iraq is often judged by numbers -- the number of boots on the ground, the number of dead.

When 200 members of the 800-member 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment extended their enlistments earlier this year so they could accompany the Two-Five back to Iraq, their decision was numerically significant.

No infantry battalion has had as many Marines extend their tours as the Two-Five -- troops who were “short-timers” and could have ended their service with comfy stateside billets but chose instead to return to Iraq to help less-experienced Marines navigate the dangers.

As the Marines from the Two-Five returned to Camp Pendleton early Monday, they had a new significant number to boast about: zero.

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In seven months of patrolling the streets of Ramadi, once the most violent city in Anbar province, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment had no Marines or sailors killed and only one injured. In its previous deployment, the battalion’s numbers were 15 killed and more than 200 wounded.

No one is saying that the presence of the 200 Marines who had extended their tours was the crucial factor in the battalion’s returning with no fatalities. No one is saying it wasn’t.

“One-hundred percent accountability. Everybody came home alive,” said Staff Sgt. Joe Flores, 33, as he embraced his wife, Yadira. “One-hundred percent.”

Hundreds of family members waited in the cool night air, welcome home banners at the ready. Shortly before 2 a.m., the first buses arrived, carrying Marines whose flight from Iraq had landed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.

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For Wendy Hill of Phoenix, it was the end of the longest seven months of her life. Her son, Cpl. Joshua Bodnovits, 22, was on his first tour. She had taken comfort in the fact that so many of his fellow Marines had opted to return with him.

“I prayed every day that they wouldn’t have any casualties,” she said. “It was hard at first. Then it got easier. But as the date for them to come home got closer, I got scared something was going to happen.”

Barbara Porter’s son, Cpl. Jesse Porter, 22, was one of the 200 who responded to an appeal from his commanding officer and sergeant-major to make another trip to Iraq before returning to civilian life.

“It scared me to death, but it wasn’t surprising,” said Barbara Porter, also of Phoenix. “He couldn’t stand to let them go without him.”

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Jo McDaid of Kalamazoo, Mich., was similarly unsurprised when her son, Sgt. Matthew McDaid, 22, announced he was returning to Iraq, voluntarily.

“He’s a sniper, so he has skills he thought he could use to protect his brothers,” she said.

There are outside factors, of course, in the Two-Five returning with no troops killed in action. The Iraqi security forces are taking a more active role in Ramadi, and Sunni tribal sheiks’ support for the United States has been strong.

Cpl. Taren Hicks, 22, from Idaho, was among the 200 who returned. “He’s a Marine doing his job, end of story,” said his grandfather, Ken Ohls, of Idaho, a former Marine.

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Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy, executive officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, said no one should be surprised at the high extension number.

“It’s all about, ‘If my buddies are going, I’m going too,’ ” he said.

As the Marines stepped from the buses, many were able to hold children born in their absence.

One new father was Cpl. Saul Mellado, whose wife, Kirsten, gingerly handed him Christopher, his 5-month-old son.

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In his Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, President Bush quoted what Mellado had said in a news report about why he chose to return to Iraq instead of staying home for the birth of his son: “I’m here so our sons don’t have to come here and fight someday.”

As they left the parade deck, the Marines and their families had special plans -- barbecues, trips to Las Vegas, a beach outing in the California sun.

One Oklahoma family had a surprise for their returning Marine: tickets for the Texas-Oklahoma State football game.

Wendy Hill had plans too for what to do after celebrating her son’s return.

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“I’m going to get the best night’s sleep in seven months,” she said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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