Marines' lives were just getting started
Lance Cpl. Mason Vanderwork loved going to the beach and cruising in his Mustang convertible. He and his wife, Taylor, married the day after she graduated high school and hoped to start a family.
The 21-year-old loved being a Marine and had a tattoo emblazoned on his chest, she said, that read: "Sacrifice. Without fear there is no courage."
He was among the Marines killed in a desert training accident this week — most of them young men not yet weathered by life's hardships.
Just 19, Pfc. Josh Martino of Dubois, Pa., had already spent nearly half his young life dreaming of becoming one of "the few, the proud." He had joined in July and was hoping to marry his fiancee later this year before being deployed to Afghanistan, his mother said.
"Since he was probably 8 years old he wanted to be a Marine," Karen Perry said Wednesday after meeting with military officials to start planning her son's funeral. "That's all he wanted to do."
Lance Cpl. Josh Taylor, 21, also seemed to have been born for the Corps. The Marietta, Ohio, native had talked about being a Marine since he was about 5, said his grandfather, Larry Stephens. Josh, too, was planning for a wedding, scheduled for May.
Both young men were among seven members of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force killed late Monday when a mortar shell exploded in its firing tube during an exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. Eight men were injured.
Six remained hospitalized in Reno on Thursday, and their overall conditions were improving. Five were listed in fair condition, and one was in serious, compared with two who had been serious a day earlier.
A decade after the invasion of Iraq and nearly 12 years since the United States launched the global war on terror, Americans have become wearily accustomed to the sight of flag-draped coffins being solemnly offloaded at Dover Air Force Base. But news of such loss on American soil, far from any foreign battlefield, has the power to shock.
The bodies of the seven victims arrived Wednesday night at Dover after a procession and small ceremony on the ramp at the Reno airport, said Maj. April Conway, spokeswoman for the Nevada Army National Guard.
During the past dozen years, barber Kenton Jones has touched the heads of many Marines and their family members. And they have touched him. Some of the men who've sat in his chair at Sharpe Cuts II — just up a busy highway from Lejeune's main gate — came home from the Middle East in coffins.
Staring out his window, he couldn't help wondering whether any of those killed or wounded in Nevada had come under his shears.
"During a time of war or whatever, the occupation ... you kind of expect it," he says. "But when it happens here, it seems senseless and it seems like a loss that could have been prevented."
Down the road in Jacksonville, Marine veteran Guy Henry Woods led out-of-state relatives on a tour of the Beirut Memorial, built to honor the 241 Marines, sailors and other American service members who died in a 1983 truck bombing that destroyed their barracks in the Lebanese capital.
Woods, 66, was wounded twice in Vietnam and spent time in a U.S. Navy hospital in Guam. Surrounded by curved glass walls etched with the names of the fallen, Woods said it mattered not whether these Marines died in an accident here at home or on a distant battlefield.
"They put that uniform on, they gain the same respect as anybody that's been to war," the grizzled 20-year veteran said over the sound of the dancing water in the memorial's fountain. "That's the way I personally look at it myself. I still respect them, and I sympathize with them for what happened."
The seven Marines killed ranged in age from 19 to 26. Some had served overseas; others were training for their first deployment. They were in the final night of a training exercise spread out of several days in California and Nevada when the accident occurred.
While many had long dreamed of being Marines, some were already making plans for a life after the Corps.
Twenty-six-year-old Aaron Ripperda of Highland, Ill., joined the service after graduating from a St. Louis culinary school and finding the job market flat. His father tried to gently dissuade him.
"He told us he always felt like he had a calling to join the Marines," Kent Ripperda told The Associated Press from his home in Marine, Ill. "I guess maybe it was a prestige thing."
He enlisted in 2008, did a tour in Afghanistan in 2011 and was just a couple months from finishing his stint in the Marines. He was looking forward to returning home and attending Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville this fall, his father said.
Kent Ripperda said his son was eager to go back to college and "get on with his life."
Roger Muchnick, 23, who grew up in Westport, Conn., had already pulled one tour in Afghanistan and was thinking about returning to college after his enlistment was up, said his grandfather, Jerome Muchnick.
Muchnick played on the football and lacrosse teams at Staples High School and went on to play lacrosse at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he studied business. In a biography on the university's website, Muchnick said the one thing he would like to do before he died was "live," and that his most embarrassing moment was getting caught lip-synching in a school talent show.
"He was a fabulous kid. Just fabulous," his grandfather said. "He was at the top of his game when this happened. ... You can't imagine losing a very handsome, 23-year-old grandson who was vital and loving."
Lance Cpl. William Taylor Wild IV, 21, joined the Marines shortly after graduating in 2010 form Severna Park High School near Annapolis, Md. His mother, Elizabeth Wild, said he was in a weapons platoon that was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in November. He already had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Kuwait.
Wild said her son always wanted to go into the military, like his father, who is a command chief in the Air Force Reserve at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The military identified the other Marine who was killed as Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Fla. he joined the Marines in June 2010 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force said in a written statement.
On Thursday, the military released the names of six of the eight people who were injured. They are Lance Cpl. Sean J. Burke, Lance Cpl. Douglas L. Hand II, Lance Cpl. Myles E. Harris, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Ian S. McClanahan, Sgt. Caleb W. Patton, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ryan P. West.
McClanahan was the only one classified as "very seriously injured."
The explosion Monday caused an immediate suspension of the use of 60 mm mortars by the Marine Corps, with an exemption for troops in Afghanistan, U.S. military and Marine officials said. Marine units on the warfront may continue to use the mortars with the review and approval of their commanders. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said they have not stopped using the mortars there.
The suspension, which will be in effect until the accident investigation is complete, largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
At Camp Lejeune, an 170-square-mile base and home to about 50,000 uniformed troops, counselors at the Naval Hospital were gearing up to offer help as the ripples from Monday's tragedy began reaching family and friends, barracks mates and survivors, said Dr. Sawsan Ghurani, director of mental health programs at the hospital.
"It's so unexpected that it's more of a shock than if you'd been mentally prepared" for battlefield casualties, said Ghurani, a psychiatrist and Navy captain. "You hope people don't die in war, but it is a common occurrence and whereas, in training exercises, it's very rare."
The ages of the victims make it even worse, Ghurani said.
"For me, it's especially tragic when they are so young and still have so much left to give in life and to experience in life that it just seems unfair," she said. But, she added, "The nature of the military culture is to be selfless."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Ted Bridis, Lolita Baldor and Pauline Jelinek in Washington; Scott Sonner and Martin Griffith in Reno, Nev.; Michelle Rindels and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio; Jim Suhr in St. Louis; Dave Collins in Hartford, Conn.; Michelle Janaye Nealy in Severna Park, Md.; Kasey Jones in Baltimore; and Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, S.C.