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Marines erect cross on Veterans Day to honor fallen comrades

November 11, 2011 |  7:18 pm

Cross erected at Camp Pendleton

To honor the memory of four Marine comrades killed in Iraq and to show respect for all military personnel sent to foreign lands, a small but determined group trudged up a steep hill at Camp Pendleton on Friday morning as the nation observed Veterans Day.

At precisely the date and time when World War I officially ended, giving rise to Armistice Day -- the forerunner to Veterans Day -- the group erected a 13-foot cross. The cross replaced one put on the hill in 2003 by the Marines before they deployed to Iraq. It was destroyed by a brush fire.

The four Marines were part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. The 2/1 was a lead element in the battle of Fallouja in early 2004.

PHOTOS: Honoring the fallen

“We wanted them all to know that they’ll always be in our hearts, that they’ll never be forgotten,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger. He was also with the 2/1 and will deploy soon for his second tour to Afghanistan with a different battalion. He was wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan but insisted on reenlisting.

The cross, Rettenberger said, is dedicated to the memory of Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Maj. Ray Mendoza, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide.

“All great warriors,” Rettenberger said.

Austin and Zurheide were killed in Fallouja in 2004; Mendoza was killed in 2005 while leading Marines into combat near the Syrian border; Zembiec was killed in 2007 while leading a raid on insurgents in Baghdad.

The new cross, made of fire-retardant material, was taken to the top of the hill Thursday. Zurheide’s widow, Elena, and Mendoza’s widow, Karen, were part of the group. So were Mendoza’s two children and Zurheide’s son, born after his father’s death.

Gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, who was wounded in Iraq, was part of the group that made sure the cross was anchored firmly. So was retired naval officer Scott Radetski, who was the chaplain for the 2/1 and officiated at Zembiec’s funeral at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is now a student at Seattle University studying counseling.

Radetski made sure the cross was carried rather than brought by a vehicle. The trip took two hours. Carrying the cross, he said, makes the symbolism to Marines at Camp Pendleton more profound: The fallen are never forgotten, the mission never falters.

“We wanted it to be very moto,” said Radetski, using Marine slang for “motivational.”

And what did he think Zembiec, Mendoza, Austin and Zurheide would think if they saw a cross once again atop the hill?

“I think they’d be smiling,” he said.

PHOTOS: Honoring the fallen

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-- Rick Loomis at Camp Pendleton and Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Scott Radetski, 49, left, a retired Navy chaplain;  Marine Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger; and Gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, 32, erect a cross atop a hill at Camp Pendleton. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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