Marine vets honor brothers, heal

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Traveling veterans visit Cassville


A group of Marine veterans have found a new way to honor their fallen brothers, and help facilitate their own healing, with a grass-roots effort traveling memorial.

About eight years ago, a dozen Marines from the Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, who fought together in Ramadi, Iraq, decided to visit the grave of one of their fallen near Houston, Texas, on Memorial Day weekend.

Each year since then, Marines from the battalion, known as the 2-4, have gathered to meet near cemeteries of a fallen brother in a different city. Some come alone, some bring their families, but they come to pay respects to their fallen brothers, on their own terms, and in their own ways.

One year, the Marines met at a campground along the Guadalupe river in Texas, spending the evening drinking beer and telling stories.

The act of coming together to visit friends who've been through the same circumstances is doing more than just provide recreation -- it is helping them deal with their own experiences, and in the process, heal.

"If you've been around people for years and have had the same experiences, you tend to develop a bond," said Eddie Flores, Marine Corps Quartermaster of Marine Corps League Detachment 993 out of Springfield.

One Marine who was a part of the memorial group and 2-4 Battalion was Cassville native Zach Phillips.

"My son was there, and it's the veterans coming together from that particular unit," said Joy Phillips, owner of Joyous Embroidery in Cassville. "They had made it their mission since they got out of the Marine Corps to visit the gravesite of one of their fallen brothers every year."

This year, the Marine veterans came to Cassville to honor brothers such as Zach Phillips who died two years ago, at the age of 29.

"He survived the Ramadi, Iraq, attack," Joy Phillips said. "He came home in 2007. I lost him in November 2014."

Phillips said her son, and his fellow Marines, survived extremely difficult circumstances during their deployment to Iraq, and many have dealt with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"These young men have gone through it, and it's very important to them that they do this [memorial] every year," she said. "And I know that Zach, when he would come home, would seem more like himself because he'd had a chance to talk to someone who knew where he'd been and what he'd been through, and I think it helps these guys to get together and talk about how you deal with this and that.

"It's something they've done on their own. It's not a Marine Corps thing and not sponsored by anyone. The guys get all the logistics together, and they make a Facebook page where they invite fellow veterans."

In 2003, Zach went into the military straight out of high school. By 2004, he was in Ramadi.

"They left California Feb. 18, 2004, out of the school of infantry," Phillips said. "He wanted to go into the hardest branch, which was the Marines, and in the school of infantry to be a boot-on-the-ground. He was a sawgunner. They were usually out front laying down doing the shooting for the guys behind. It was scary to him I'm sure, but it was a big deal for him to do that, to be among the first guys there.

"I'm not sure when they hit the ground, but April 6, 2004, was the worst day. They say that on that day, they took the biggest losses in Marine Corps history. They were patrolling the streets when all hell broke loose."

On that day, insurgents led an ambush against the Marines in the 2-4 group, resulting in 24 dead, and more than 255 wounded. The ambush was thought to have taken more casualties than any other American unit during a six-month tour of either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Gabe Henderson, one of the Memorial Day event organizers, said in an article published in the New York Times in 2012 entitled, "Learning to Heal, One Memorial Day at a TIme," that members of the 2-4 arrived in Iraq expecting the tour to be about winning hearts and minds more than combat, and took unarmored Humvees with sandbags and plywood. But after coming under fire on each patrol, they welded metal bars to the windows to protect drivers from being shot.

"We thought we'd be shaking hands and handing out stuff and not wearing body armor," Henderson said. "Instead, we were in a firefight every other day."

Brian McPherson was one of the wounded, losing most of his jaw from a roadside bomb and enduring 13 facial reconstruction surgeries. McPherson attended a Memorial Day reunion in 2012, and invited his best friend Greg Coats, who after leaving the Marine Corps, struggled with recurrent dreams about death and dying that would not stop.

Phillips said because of what happened to Zach Phillips, and the men in the 2-4, she would not recommend joining the military, and felt her son was misled.

"And that's too bad, because we need people in the military, but I would not ever recommend anyone to let their child go," she's said. "They thought they were going there for goodwill-type things, and to help the Iraqis, but that's what the school of infantry is. It's the training to shoot-and-kill. They knew by going over there that's what they were going to have to do, but they were thinking it would come out to be the best-case scenario and they wouldn't have to be in big fights like that."

Phillips said he son struggled with the things he witnessed in Iraq.

"We used to get a phone call from him -- if you were lucky -- once a month," she said. "I could tell something was wrong, and he'd say, 'Mom, how do I deal with this, I saw a whole school bus of kids get blown up.' And they'd kept telling their commanding officer, 'We've been here too long. We need to leave.'

"In their minds, they were going there as goodwill ambassadors, so it was pretty hard to reconcile what they thought they were going there for, and what they came home with. The boys come back here with a lot of guilt and terrible feelings. It was hard for these 18-and-19-year-olds because of [the] killing [that took place]."

During his second tour in Iraq, Zach Phillips saved fellow Marine Elliot Diaz' life, when he prevented him from stepping on a land mine.

"Elliot has been here to visit about three times since [Zach] passed," Joy said.

After Phillips came home, life was different.

"It was really hard to watch Zach go through everything he went through," she said. "Because he had PTSD and he was diagnosed with other health conditions, and it just seemed like things were never the same."

Zach had a three-year-old daughter, Ada, at the time of his death. If he were alive, Joy said he would be participating in the memorial service.

Joy and her sister are raising awareness about the memorial service to help the Marines pay for meals and travel expenses.

"A lot of these guys aren't financially stable, and it's quite a financial burden to travel," Phillips said. "I can only imagine how much it benefits the families of the fallen Marines, because they've got these guys coming here and telling them stories about their son, and so they're bonding with them. It's a big thing."

The group met for a private service on Sunday near a local cemetery where Zach is buried. The Marine Corps League Detachment 993, led by Flores, provided a gun salute and played Taps.

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