BROOKE PARK, Ohio (AP) - Keith Wightman can tell how much time has passed since his only child was killed in Iraq by looking at a blue spruce he planted in the Marine’s honor.
The once 3-foot-tall tree in Wightman’s yard now stands at 12, maybe 15 feet tall.
“The 10 years have flown by,” says the resident of Washington Court House, which is between Columbus and Cincinnati. “It really feels like it just happened yesterday.”
“It’” is the 2005 tour in Iraq of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, 4th Marine Division- a reserve unit known as the 3/25. Wightman’s son, William Brett, was a member of that unit, headquartered in Brook Park.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 3/25’s tour, which sent 900 Marines and sailors to fight in Iraq, sometimes with up to 300 reinforcements from other units. Forty-eight combatants, including Brett, were killed, and more than 200 were injured in action, making this one of the war’s costliest tours.
Keith Wightman signed enlistment papers for his son, who was captain of his high school football team, a varsity basketball player, a track team member and prom king. The father says he’d do it again.
“Brett just wanted to be a Marine,” says Wightman.
In a nation once chilly toward warriors from another fight, Vietnam, thousands turned out to mourn the 3/25’s dead and cheer the living. Ohio and the blue-collar Brook Park community became global symbols of the high price paid by Middle America for the war in Iraq.
And while 3/25 survivors and families still struggle with wounds of the body and mind a decade later, survivors say that they, their comrades and the families of the fallen are moving forward.
Rebuilding lives back at home
Since the 2005 tour, Master Sgt. and Corpsman R.J. Thacker married, became the father of two girls and bought a white colonial home for the family in Mentor. He also runs a business with an old 3/25 comrade, 1st Sgt. Chad Williams. Their company, Earth Anatomy, makes stone veneers in China and has employed a few other 3/25-ers.
Because of the war, “certain things are harder and certain things are easier,” says Thacker, 42, sitting on his front porch, watching his daughters play in the driveway.
His body clock is still AWOL, but Thacker’s training as a corpsman came in handy when he calmly helped save his daughter after a seizure. He says overall, “the military experience prepared me for the roles of an entrepreneur, a father and a husband.”
Says his wife, Anne, “I’m incredibly proud of what he’s done and all he’s seen. It’s shaped who he is and how he lives. He’s very much in the moment and celebrates life. He deals with it really well.”
Other 3/25-ers have moved on, too. Several work in safety, health care or politics.
Sgt. Chris Morgan is a jailer in Bedford Heights. First Lt. Jeff Schuller of Monroeville, Ohio, a 2005 Silver Star honoree, works for the public safety department in North Carolina. Senior Chief Petty Officer Brett Schaser is a surgical physician’s assistant at Richmond Hospital. Schaser turns 42 on Memorial Day and retires from the Marines in June.
Then there’s 1st Sgt. Ruben Gallego who won a congressional seat in Arizona. Sgt. Matt Mason became second in command of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential bid. Former Sgt. Jason Dominguez is assistant director and chief of staff at the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel also served with the 3/25 and fought in Iraq twice, but not during the 2005 tour.
Dominguez, 35, says while there’s no question “anyone in our unit has to have some degree of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” the 3/25-ers are coping.
“Civilians have this misconception that everyone with stress is a broken individual who can’t cope with life. That’s not the case.”
Paralyzed but still “proudest Marine ever”
Shurvon Phillip graduated from Shaw High School in 1998 and enlisted right away in the 3/25.
In civilian life, he studied information technology at Cuyahoga Community College. After his deployment orders to Iraq arrived, his mother, Gail Ulerie, worried.
“But he assured me that everything was going to be OK, and that was his job,” says Ulerie. After all, Sgt. Phillip was “the proudest Marine ever.”
That assurance was short-lived. In May 2005, Phillip’s Humvee ran over a land mine. The explosion left him paralyzed. He also had collapsed lungs, a broken foot and a broken jaw.
For more than a year after his injuries, he convalesced in different hospitals. “He had so many surgeries that I lost count,” says Ulerie.
With a low-interest veteran’s loan, the family bought a wheelchair-accessible house in Richmond Heights. For the first time in years Phillip, an animal lover, could have a dog: a beloved shih tzu named Polly.
Ulerie takes care of Phillip round the clock. At 34, he can react and smile, but he still can’t talk, eat solid food, move his limbs or maneuver his wheelchair. He passes time watching TV, playing computer games with his fingers and having fun with his beloved Polly.
When he feels up to it, he gets extensive therapy including weekly carriage rides at the Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center in Bainbridge Township. With help, he can brush the horses.
For the past few weeks, though, Phillip’s been hospitalized at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center for an infection, a common problem for immobile people.
Ulerie says she can only guess what Phillip and his comrades keep inside. “They’re all fighting their own demons,” she says.
Still, with everything he’s facing, his mom says Phillip is as cheerful today as he was before the war.
“He always has that smile on his face,” she says.
Who are the 3/25-ers?
The 3/25-ers who went to Iraq varied widely in age, experience and hometown. They enlisted with the battalion’s Headquarters and Service Company in Brook Park; the Weapons Company in Akron; Lima Company in Columbus; India Company in Buffalo; and Kilo Company in Moundsville, West Virginia.
Some reservists signed up right out of high school or college. Others had served first as active-duty Marines. Many signed up at a time when reservists seemed unlikely to fight. Others joined after 2001, hoping to fight terrorists.
Most of the battalion was activated on Jan. 4, 2005 and trained in Twentynine Palms, California. In March, the battalion reached Iraq and the violent Al Anbar province, where insurgents were slipping in from Syria.
“That was pretty much the Wild West,” says Cpl. Mike Strahle, 30, who runs a traveling exhibit called The Lima Company Memorial: The Eyes of Freedom.
Some 3/25-ers patrolled the Iraqi city of Hit. Others worked smaller villages, roamed the countryside, guarded the hydroelectric dam and hospital in Haditha.
At their bases, combatants used cellphones and video to reassure their families. Morgan of Bedford Heights, who turned 26 during the tour, telecoached the birth of his third child. But a couple of comrades would never meet the children born to them a hemisphere away.
Some 3/25-ers never saw combat; others saw it almost daily. The death toll began March 25, 2005, and grew more frequent through July of that year.
Back home, civilians began to leave flowers, mementos and posters of support on the battalion’s gates in Brook Park. The town already had lost a comrade in Iraq from the Ohio Army National Guard 112th Engineer Battalion in 2004, but no one expected the 48 casualties of 2005.
Around Ohio, crowds swarmed funerals and processions. “It was mind-boggling the amount of condolences I got,” says Robert Williams, who lost his son, Cpl. Andre Williams, 23, of Galloway, Ohio, on July 28, 2005.
“I received letters and emails from all over the U.S.,” the father says. “The man was definitely honored.”
A mother mourns, takes action
Daniel Nathan Deyarmin Jr. loved to rebuild cars and trucks with his dad Dan in their huge garage in Tallmadge. Nate also loved mischief. In Iraq, he once posed for a picture looking like his Mom, Edie, in a dress and wig. But Nate had grim moments, too.
In a call home, he cried about the people he killed in Iraq, saying he didn’t know if he “got the right ones.” His family recalls that he also worried about the enemies he couldn’t kill, saying he wasn’t given clearance to fire but knew the enemy might turn around and shoot him in a month or two.
On Aug. 1, 2005, Nate, a 22-year-old lance corporal, and five fellow snipers were caught on an open plateau without the normal backup, and slain by a ring of gunmen. Col. Lionel Urquhart, then battalion commander, said the officers responsible for the mission would never deploy troops again.
Edie Deyarmin says she doesn’t feel her son “gave his life. It was taken from him.”
But she didn’t just mourn. She started Northeast Ohio Gold Star Mothers and the annual Lance Cpl. Daniel “Nate” Deyarmin Jr. Memorial Benefit Run, which helps veterans and their families.
“I’m done with the memorial stuff,” she said in 2006. “I’d rather help the living.”
Today, Nate’s comrades and old girlfriend still check up on his parents. His soft-spoken father hasn’t finished all the vehicles he was fixing with Nate, but Dan and outspoken Edie have another enjoyment in life- their 4-year-old grandchild named Nate.
Says Edie, “I still get angry, but it’s not going to bring one of those 48 guys back.”
At this year’s Deyarmin Run, the Tallmadge post office will be named for her son.
The deadliest day
The 3/25’s last and costliest day of death was Aug. 3, 2005. Among the victims was Lance Cpl. Edward August Schroeder II, 23.
His parents, Paul Schroeder and Rosemary Palmer of Cleveland, smile gently when recalling Augie’s “goofy” sense of humor. He went to a Halloween party as O.J. Simpson’s black glove and another as feuding skater Tonya Harding.
Their son loved teams. He joined the Scouts, varsity sports, a lifeguard squad and an emergency medical squad. While at Ohio State University, he joined the 3/25’s Lima Company.
On Aug. 3, 2005, the young Schroeder died along with 13 comrades after their convoy hit a bomb.
Later that year, Schroeder’s father met a Gold Star mother from Vietnam. “Does it get any better?” Paul asked.
“No,” she replied. “You just get used to it.”
The Schroeders had opposed the war all along. After the 3/25 tour Paul, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, founded Families of the Fallen for Change, and wrote opinion pieces for this newspaper and others. Rosemary ran for public office twice but lost.
Today, Paul and Rosemary have a 4-year-old grandson with the middle name Augie. The couple’s pine-paneled basement is filled with their son Augie’s photos and medals. Paul still wears the Marine’s dog tags daily, saying, “I feel naked without them.”
Remember the 3/25
On Aug. 8, 2005, several thousand people swarmed the I-X Center for a memorial service for the 3/25’s fallen. Journalists from around the world publicized the stricken but proud Brook Park as a quintessential American suburb, built on Ford Motors and G.I. home loans.
In October of that year, the 3/25 survivors returned to their companies’ bases. Brook Park’s survivors brought along their mascot, Beans. Cpl. Jeffrey Boskovitch, 25, of Seven Hills had bought the scruffy dog in Iraq for 25 cents and three jelly beans.
When Boskovitch was killed that August, his mother, Kathy Wright, persuaded the Marines to cut through red tape and bring Beans home. She said, “I need the dog who was with my son to live her life out here, with me, in his house.”
Civilians lined parade routes for homecomings and offered the troops parties, podiums, freebies and jobs. They also created several memorial displays and named sections of highways for the fallen.
Lt. Schuller, who fought twice more in the Mideast, has served with Marines elsewhere in the country but says he’s never seen support like Greater Cleveland’s.
Mark Elliott, Brook Park’s mayor back then, chokes up while saying, “I’m so proud of how our community rose to the occasion. Brook Park really rallied the country to support the troops.”
Battalion leaders said the 3/25 had fulfilled its goals. It sent 119 prisoners to Abu Ghraib, found 161 bombs and mines and paved the way for a high-turnout election soon after the tour.
“Everybody focuses on the losses the battalion took,” says Lt. Col. David McElliott, a platoon leader on the tour, now the 3/25’s commander, “but the battalion did a lot of great things.”
Until January 2006, the battalion remained on active duty, but more than half the members were allowed to leave early. Most of the rest reported just in the daytime, handling paperwork and supplies, collecting donations for the Marines’ Toys for Tots program and exercising, sometimes by bowling or playing volleyball.
Three years after the tour, 43 survivors from the 3/25 returned to Iraq with another outfit. All survived again.
By 2010, the 3/25 fought in Afghanistan and lost one member, who had not fought in Iraq. Today, 59 survivors of the 2005 tour still serve the Marines in military or civilian roles. Enlistees serve six years at a time and remain eligible another two years for recalls to active duty.
Strahle says the Gold Star families are moving forward, too, partly with the help of memorials like his Eyes of Freedom. “People are in a lot better place than they were 10 years ago.”
Down state, Keith Wightman says he worried for a few years about his only child’s soul. Then the father dreamed about seeing his son and his comrades across a white picket fence.
Says Wightman, “There were so many things I wanted to ask, but the only thing I could was, ‘Are you all right?’ He goes, ‘Dad, I’m doing fine.’”
Information from: The Plain Dealer, https://www.cleveland.com
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