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Lawmaker urges allowing cross to remain at Camp Pendleton

December 13, 2011 |  1:01 pm

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Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has urged the Marine Corps to allow a cross to remain atop a hill at Camp Pendleton as a memorial to four Marines killed in Iraq.

Hunter served in the same battalion with the four during the battle in Fallouja in early 2004.

Two atheist groups have urged that the cross be taken down, alleging that its presence on public land is improper and illegal. The issue has been sent to Marine Corps headquarters for review, according to a spokeswoman.

Legal challenges to crosses meant as memorials to the fallen “are not only a disservice to our military but they undermine generations of personal sacrifice on behalf of a nation committed to protecting individual freedom,” Hunter wrote Tuesday to Col. Nicholas F. Marano, the base commanding officer.

The cross was erected on Veterans Day to replace a cross put in the same location in 2004 and then destroyed by a brush fire in 2007.

The cross replacement was not an official or sanctioned activity by the Marine Corps; rather it was carried to the spot by a small group of Marines, family members and a Navy chaplain.

The cross is meant to show respect for all military veterans but specifically for Maj. Ray Mendoza, Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide, all of whom served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment along with Hunter, who is now a captain in the Marine Reserves.

“Honoring those and other Marines with a memorial at Camp Pendleton is a fitting tribute that represents the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps and (the Marines’) extraordinary personal sacrifice,” Hunter wrote.

Mendoza, Zembiec and Zurheide were part of the group that in 2004 took the original cross to the site.

Austin and Zurheide were killed in Fallouja in 2004. Mendoza was killed in Al Qaim in 2005 and Zembiec was killed in Baghdad in 2007.

The Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers, and Americans United for a Separation of Church and State, have demanded that the cross be removed.

The American Center for Law Justice and the Thomas More Law Center have urged that it be allowed to remain.

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-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: A cross atop a hill at Camp Pendleton has come under fire. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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