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THE WAR IN IRAQ
Marines pride themselves on being more like a family than a military service, and the Kaneohe branch of that family was grieving the loss of 27 comrades yesterday.
"The impact is huge," said Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, the executive officer of the 3,500 Marines who belong to three battalions that make up the 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay.
On Wednesday, Lovejoy's 1st Battalion lost 26 Kaneohe Marines and one Navy corpsman when the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter they were riding in crashed in western Iraq while transporting troops for security operations in preparation of Sunday's elections. Four helicopter crewmen from California were also killed.
"The last time we lost that many Marines was the Beirut bombing in 1983," said Lovejoy, referring to the Oct. 23, 1983, attack that killed 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service members in a Marine barracks.
"It's difficult," Lovejoy said. "You look at all Marines as your brother. Nothing prepares you for this."
Lovejoy said all 27 service members were veterans of last year's Fallujah offensive where 10 other Kaneohe Marines and one Navy corpsman were killed in combat.
It will be the third such memorial in Kaneohe since the locally based Marines arrived in Iraq in October. On Jan. 13 the close-knit military community came together to honor the Marines and the corpsman who had fallen in Fallujah.
Two months earlier the Windward Oahu community remembered the Marines who had been killed in Iraq just weeks after arriving in early October. Seven of the fallen had died when a suicide bomber attacked their convoy on Oct. 30.
Until Wednesday's accident the 1st Battalion had lost 16 Marines and one Navy corpsman. Two of the deaths were not combat-related: One Marine died of heatstroke on Okinawa in August, and another was a victim of a vehicle accident near Abu Ghraib.
Lovejoy declined to say how many of the 27 have families living in the nearly 3,000-acre Marines Base on Mokapu Peninsula.
Lovejoy said Marines officials believe Wednesday's crash was an accident.
There were two troop carrying CH-53E Super Stallions flying tandem near the Syrian border in a fog and sandstorm just before the 1:30 a.m. crash. They were flying at night to avoid detection.
The four helicopter crew members were from Miramar Air Station near San Diego.
Lovejoy said the commander of the 3rd Regiment, Col. James Patterson, has visited every surviving family member who lives on Oahu. He said Navy chaplains were included in every casualty assistance team, which will remain with the grieving families throughout the ordeal.
Lovejoy's wife, Trudy, who is the volunteer coordinator of the support network of spouses and friends for the 3rd Regiment, said each surviving family has been told, "We're going to be there for them as a backup."
"We will be there to immediately comfort them," Trudy Lovejoy said, "and see that their needs are taken care of."
She said help by the Key Volunteer Support group can range from simple chores like providing a meal or taking care of children to picking up family members coming to Hawaii or even cleaning a house.
But the strain of the tragedy was apparent in her voice, which quavered as she said: "I've received so many phone calls today ... people asking if they can help with child care, meals and all of that kind of thing. The Marine Corps takes care of its own, and we're doing everything we can on this end to take care of the families."
Despite the accident, the Kaneohe Marines continue to carry on their current mission, providing a security force for Sunday's national elections in Iraq, Lt. Col. Lovejoy said.
Standing in front of the replica of the Iwo Jima memorial, Lovejoy said: "Even though they did lose 27 of their comrades, they have to keep going. It doesn't stop for them."
When asked what he would tell his three children about Wednesday's tragedy, Lovejoy replied, "Pray for them and be proud of them."