At Camp Pendleton, every day is Memorial Day
An American flag encased in glass dominates the living room of the town house Marine Staff Sgt. Ryan Gray shares with his wife and their two small children.
Sewn onto the flag with black thread are the names of 30 Marines who lost their lives in Iraq. Twenty-four died in a helicopter crash. Gray was almost one of them.
He had thrown his pack aboard the Super Stallion CH-53E headed to the Syrian border, but there was no room for him. He jumped aboard a second chopper. That one landed safely; the other crashed in a sandstorm, killing everyone aboard.
The flag, which Gray bought and had embroidered in Kuwait, is among the family’s most cherished possessions.
“We’re the voice and spirits of the boys who didn’t come home,” said Gray’s wife, Alexsia.
When the Marine Corps moved the family from Hawaii to Camp Pendleton, Ryan Gray told the movers, “You can break anything else, but don’t dare break that flag.”
After eight years of war, memorials large and small, formal and informal have appeared throughout homes, offices and training sites on this sprawling base. Some enlisted Marines have tattoos with the names of buddies they’ve lost. Others have decals with the names on their cars and trucks.
For much of the Iraq war, Camp Pendleton, home to the 1st Marine Division, held the grim distinction of being the U.S. military base with the highest number of troops killed and wounded.
Every day here is Memorial Day.
From the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 to the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and the bloody fight with insurgents in Anbar province, troops from Camp Pendleton have fought in the vanguard. Now they’re returning to Afghanistan as part of a more aggressive strategy ordered by President Obama.
Last week, Gray, a decorated veteran of the battle of Fallouja, and more than 1,000 Marines and sailors from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, headed to Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. The deployment is for seven months, maybe longer. More battalions will follow.
For Gray, it’s his fifth overseas deployment in seven years.
He was about to become a recruiter, but before he could start he was transferred to the One-Five, which needed noncommissioned officers with combat experience.
“It’s not going to be an easy mission,” said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the battalion commander. “We have no doubt they’re going to fight us, and we have no doubt they’re going to lose.”
Outside McCollough’s office are framed photos of 16 Marines from One-Five killed in Ramadi in 2006. Across the street from McCollough’s office is a granite memorial to all 5th Marine Regiment troops killed in Iraq.
Navy Cmdr. Paul Shaughnessy, a Catholic chaplain who has deployed four times to Iraq with the Marines, said thoughts of the dead are never far from their minds, but they rarely speak openly about them. “They don’t obsess,” he said.
With the surge of Army troops into Baghdad, Ft. Hood in Texas has now seen more troops killed in Iraq than any other base, 479, according to www.icasualties.org, an independent website that monitors military deaths.
Camp Pendleton is second, with 348 Marines and sailors. But factor in two other Southern California bases that often deploy with Pendleton troops -- 115 from Twentynine Palms and 10 from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station -- and the number killed in action nearly equals that of Hood.
Even when Marines talk tough about combat, emotions about the dead can intrude.
Col. Patrick Malay, the rough-hewn commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, told a Dana Point group last month that the unit’s success in Anbar province is due to “the killing power of a Marine infantry battalion.”
But his voice faltered when he talked about Lance Cpl. Drew Weaver, killed when an insurgent’s bullet struck him inches above his protective vest.
Much of the coping with death falls to spouses and other family members.
“It doesn’t matter if they’ve lost one member of their unit or 30, it stays with these Marines forever, and they take it home to their families,” said Kristin Henderson, whose husband is a Navy chaplain. “Young spouses are trying to comfort young widows.”
Henderson, a journalist, is the author of “While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront,” an intimate look at the fears of stay-behind military families. Her husband has gone to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines and is now stationed in Japan.
“As the deployments and the losses pile up, it can get hard to cope,” she said. “Within the military community, the losses bind us more tightly together.
“But they also increase the distance between us and civilians who aren’t being asked to sacrifice like that.”
Alexsia Gray has vivid and painful memories of the day in January 2005 that the helicopter crashed.
Word circulated quickly among Marine families in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where her husband was then based. She delayed returning to their home, afraid she might find officers waiting with tragic news.
Other wives began receiving official notification. Gray could hear sobbing.
“I just said, ‘Please, God, let it not be my door this time,’ ” she said.
She has conflicted feelings about her husband’s deployment to Afghanistan. She’s proud of him and appreciative of the financial stability his military service has brought the young family.
The couple, both immigrants from Jamaica, plan to use his tax-exempt $30,000 reenlistment bonus to help buy a home. On-base child care for their son and daughter frees Alexsia Gray to study. She graduated last week from MiraCosta College in Oceanside and will study further to become a registered nurse.
Her husband has urged her to make “what if” plans in case something happens to him, including what to tell their son, Tore-Andre, 5, and their daughter, Kalissa, 18 months.
“Anyone who stays in pretty much accepts the fact that’s the way of life,” Ryan Gray said matter-of-factly.
Growing up in Jamaica, Gray had dreamed of joining the Marine Corps ever since seeing the classic John Wayne movie “Sands of Iwo Jima.” After he came to the United States, he said, “it was either boot camp or bust.”
Alexsia Gray, 31, puts it differently: “I love him, and he loves the Marine Corps.”
At 29, Ryan Gray is a combat veteran whose experience is in demand. He has done one tour in Iraq and three “floats,” in which Marines sail to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf for training and to be a “force in readiness.”
Less than a third of the Marines in One-Five have deployed to Iraq, and only a few have seen combat. Gray will lead a 20-man group in Weapons Company that may operate independently to gather intelligence or support Marines in firefights.
“Not only is he technically and tactically proficient, he can bring some adult perspective,” said Capt. Matt Danner, commander of Weapons Company, an infantry unit that also carries heavy weapons such as machine guns and Gray’s specialty, mortars.
When he talked about the Afghanistan deployment, Gray did not discuss its geopolitical significance. He talked about the young Marines under his charge, many barely out of high school and hoping to earn a Combat Action Ribbon.
“They say they want that, but when they see combat, they may change their minds,” said Gray, who received a Combat Action Ribbon for the 2004 battle of Fallouja, in which Marines had to rout heavily armed insurgents from barricaded homes. “I’m there to guide them, to get them through it. Alive.”
Alexsia Gray left before the buses arrived about 2 a.m. Friday to take the Marines and sailors of Weapons Company to March Air Reserve Base just east of Riverside to catch a flight to Afghanistan.
Many spouses stayed until the last moment, exchanging a final tear-filled kiss.
But Gray had a nursing-class test that morning and her husband wanted her to get some sleep. Besides, they’d been through it all before. “This is deja vu,” she said.
The children were at home with their grandmother, who is visiting from New York. Kalissa is too young to understand. But Tore-Andre is beginning to comprehend why his father and the other fathers in the neighborhood go away.
He has learned what deployment means. “It means Daddy can’t come home soon. He’s helping people,” he said.
With her husband gone, Alexsia Gray will take care of her children and her studies but also offer emotional support for younger spouses and occasionally glance uneasily at the flag on the wall.
“I’m a rock,” she said. “I don’t break easily.”
California’s war dead
Military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001-present.