By William M. Welch - USA Today
Posted : Thursday Jan 3, 2008 6:55:06 EST
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — For almost two years, this Marine base in Southern California has had fighters fall every month in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fallen are remembered in memorial services here every time a unit returns from fighting abroad. But this holiday season, Camp Pendleton Marines were spared the ultimate sacrifice.
No Marines based here died in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in November or December — the first time a month has gone by without a death since March 2006, according to the Defense Department casualty figures analyzed by USA Today.
“I look at it as good news,” says Staff Sgt. Johnathan Turner, 33, of Atlanta, a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq. “It means things are getting better over there.”
Pendleton has suffered some of the military’s highest casualty figures in the Iraq war, and there hadn’t been consecutive death-free months for Pendleton’s troops since early 2004.
The decline in casualties is reflected as well in the experience of Marines based at Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, N.C., where December was the third consecutive month without an Iraq fatality, according to the figures.
October was the first death-free month for Lejeune Marines since June 2004.
The declines coincide with reports of progress in securing the country during the fifth year of the war in Iraq and follow the increase in troop levels, or “surge” as the Pentagon and Bush administration labeled it.
Marines say they see improvement in Iraq security.
“Every time I went, I’ve seen progress. ... It’s always changing,” said Sgt. Justin Imbeau, 23, of Tulsa, Okla., who has spent 28 months in Iraq over three deployments, including the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The news of a break in casualties was tempered by loss for some Marines as the war grinds on.
Sgt. Seth Martin, 24, who returned from Iraq in October, said Marines think about casualties in terms of the faces of friends and fellow fighters, not statistics.
“It’s not so much the numbers as who I know,” says Martin of Corcoran, Calif. “Late in August, a buddy of mine passed away, and another is still in the hospital. While you are there, it doesn’t really hit home until somebody you know gets hit.”
Progress hasn’t lessened the strain on families back home, these Marines say. They try not to dwell on the risks or casualties when they talk to loved ones.
“Nothing long and drawn out — just quick and to the point,” said Turner, describing conversations with family members. He also cited the death of close friends serving in Iraq.
Imbeau, Martin and Turner are part of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion at Pendleton.
Imbeau took shrapnel from a 155mm artillery round while he was on foot patrol in Iraq. The incident left him with a broken jaw and nose and a perforated eardrum. He spent a month recovering and returned to his fighting position without leaving the country.
“Once it happens to you, you realize how quickly and easily it can happen,” Imbeau says of the injury. He has a wife and 6-year-old daughter.
He says he was most heartened by seeing Iraqis vote in elections — a scene that made him feel that he and his fellow Marines had made a difference in the lives of the local population. He says Marines don’t think about political debate at home over the war.
“I never have sat down and questioned why I’m there,” he said. “I never doubted why we are here. I saw my mission, went and done it, and when it’s over I come home.”
Pendleton has had 335 Marines die in Iraq since the war started, including 37 killed in 2007. That compares with 49 deaths in 2006; 39 deaths in 2005, 178 deaths in 2004, and 32 deaths in 2003, according to the Pentagon’s figures.