One month after a mortar explosion killed seven Marines and wounded eight more troops during a live-fire exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev., the unit gathered for a small private ceremony to remember their fallen.
Killed in the mortar blast were Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19, of Clearfield, Pa.; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Fla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23, of Fairfield, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21, of Marietta, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21, of Hickory, N.C.; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21, of Anne Arundel, Md.; and Corporal Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, of Madison, Ill., all with Camp Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.
In attendance for the Tuesday ceremony was North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos with his wife, Bonnie. Veteran members of 1/9–”The Walking Dead”–dating back to the Vietnam era also came to remember their fallen.
In a moving address, battalion commander Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty spoke of what the unit had lost, with personal stories about each of the fallen Marines and how they had been embrace by their communities:
When the battalion returned to Camp Lejeune, we attended seven funerals in ten days. Throughout, we continued to encounter the spirit of America and were reminded of the spirit of our men everywhere we turned. In Dubois, PA, thousands of men, women, and children lined the streets with flags in hand as the snow fell when we laid LCpl Martino to rest. LCpl Muchnick’s community provided superior support as he was buried alongside his fallen great uncle who was lost in Vietnam. We buried LCpl Taylor alongside Revolutionary War generals and fallen men from nearly every other war in America’s history in Mound Cemetery, Marietta, Ohio. Even on Camp Lejeune volunteer community service organizations such as the Patriot Guard Riders were present as we spread LCpl Vanderwork’s ashes at both Onslow Beach and in his hometown of Hickory, NC. LCpl Wild’s classic burial by men from Marine Barracks 8th & I at Arlington brought a tear to everyone’s eyes. When we bid farewell to Cpl Ripperda, the flagman and his 2,280 10’ tall flagpoles with flags in Highland, Illinois was present. During LCpl Fenn’s funeral procession, workers from local businesses were on the streets to pay homage. Walking with Fenn were Walking Dead alumni, present to comfort family and friends and pay their respects to our current generation of Marines.
Company commanders from within the unit and Marines who knew the fallen troops best also came forward, one by one, to share their own memories.
Navy Lt. Charles Ferguson, the unit chaplain, ended the ceremony on a note of hope:
Death will always lose when it is up against infantry Marines that are willing to argue with each other that they are the best potential date for Taylor Swift. Death doesn’t stand a chance against the sarcasm of these Marines. Death’s darkness can’t overcome the illuminating smiles and powerful sense of humor of these men. Death can’t bully men who refuse to succumb to peer pressure. Death can’t recover from men who will do anything to save their brothers and put others above their own safety in a time of need. Death’s grip isn’t strong enough to compete against the beauty of a simple memorial of rocks and chevrons created by brothers in arms. The fear of death will always be overwhelmed by lives that inspire thousands of people in communities around this country to come out and pay respects to their fallen sons.
As for the unit moniker, The Walking Dead, Ferguson said it did not denote fatalism, but fearlessness in the face of darkness and danger.
We call this battalion the Walking Dead and the men Deadwalkers not because they are walking around awaiting death or because of a morbid sense of humor. No, we call ourselves Deadwalkers because we walk through death with no fear. We show death it is nothing in the face of such men. Time and again, death has tried to defeat this battalion. Time and again, death has lost because we live lives inspired by men such as Josh, Billy, Mason, Joshua, Ripp, David and Rog. Lives that inspire others to live well. Lives that death can’t extinguish. So the next time the Battalion Commander ends a formation with his familiar call and response, don’t look at it as cheesy false motivation. Answer his call with pride that you are part of this storied unit and that you are willing to honor the lives of these seven and all those before you who proudly bear the name Deadwalker.
McCrory, the governor, ordered this month that flags be lowered to half-mast statewide to remember the fallen Marines.
An investigation into what went wrong during training is ongoing.