— ADVERTISEMENT —
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
RETURN FROM IRAQ
What many call their
Lance Cpl. Eric Sanchez has been in the Marine Corps for only two years, but already has missed the birth of his first daughter.
Who: About 500 Kaneohe Marines returned to the base yesterday, including 400 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, and 100 from the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines.
Deployment: 900 Marines from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, spent four months in Iraq and fought in the battle of Fallujah. They have all returned to Hawaii.
Casualties: 43 Hawaii-based Marines and sailors assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, were killed. Another 250 Marines were injured.
Medals: The unit earned 157 Purple Heart medals.
About 500 Kaneohe Marines returned to the base yesterday -- 400 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, and 100 from the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines.
Sanchez was among those greeted by family and friends. The 21-year-old cuddled his 1-month-old daughter, Rylen, for the first time after stepping off a chartered commercial jet at Kaneohe Bay.
But with two years left in his enlistment, which he plans to fulfill with Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, there's a good chance he may miss his baby's first Christmas, because his 900-member Kaneohe-base Marine combat unit is expected to return to Afghanistan before the end of the year.
Col. Jeffrey Patterson, who commands the three battalions under the 3rd Marine Regiment, confirmed that Afghanistan is a likely destination for at least 50 percent of the returning unit.
Last July, more than 900 members of the 1st Battalion left the Windward Oahu base on what was supposed to be a routine seven-month deployment to Okinawa.
A month later, the Kaneohe unit was ordered to Iraq as the all-important ground combat element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and participated in the bloodiest campaigns of the current Iraqi war.
Patterson said the 1st Battalion will be given the next 30 days off, but "then the unit will return to its training cycle, and sometime in December they will be sent to Afghanistan."
Even with 900 members of his 1st Battalion safely at home, Patterson has another 900 Marines, members of the 3rd Battalion, in Afghanistan. In June, Patterson's remaining unit -- the 2nd Battalion -- is expected to relieve the 3rd Battalion.
Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, 1st Battalion commander, described the deployment as "one of the toughest" during his 20 years in uniform.
"We came home with 51 less Marines and sailors," said Ramos, 42, referring to those killed in Iraq, with the largest loss occurring Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash where 26 Marines and one Pearl Harbor corpsman from Hawaii died.
Of the 51 casualties reported by the 1st Battalion, 43 were Marines and sailors based in the islands.
"Those Marines and sailors made a difference," Ramos said, "and it was an honor to serve with them."
Ramos also said he was thankful for letters and cards of support that his unit received from people in Hawaii.
As Sanchez greeted family and friends, his girlfriend, Rina Bell, said she didn't hear from him during the monthlong fight for Fallujah in November. She encountered another difficult time after the January helicopter crash because unit members were not able to call loved ones in Hawaii.
But he "was there by cell phone" when his daughter was born last month.
Roxanne Bell, who was at her daughter's side during labor, said Sanchez monitored the birth of her fifth granddaughter by cell phone on his way home on the USS Essex.
There was a mixture of relief and happiness at yesterday's welcoming ceremonies.
Melody Michaelson has been married to Staff Sgt. Andrew Michaelson for four years, but they haven't spent a lot of time together.
Her husband said that what he really wanted to do now was "to go home and sit on a couch." The couple plan to spend part of his 30-day leave on a San Francisco vacation.
Staff Sgt. Victor Olivares, a 10-year veteran, said he would spend his leave with his family in California.
"This was the toughest and the longest," Olivares said of his three deployments. "It's good to be back and not worry about being shot at or dodging IEDs (improvised explosive devices)."
During the 1st Battalion's extended deployment, 250 of its Marines were injured in combat and accidents. The unit earned 157 Purple Heart medals and one of its Marines, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, could be awarded the Medal of Honor for using his body to shield his squad from a grenade during the Fallujah campaign.