CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – On October 12, 2004, Pfc. Oscar A. Martinez died when shrapnel from a rocket pierced his chest at Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq. He was only three weeks into a scheduled seven-month deployment.
But this wouldn’t be the end of his story…
One year later a tired, strung-out Marine steps through the tent door, yawns, wipes the sleep from his eyes and steps out for a well-deserved cigarette. A glimpse of reflected moonlight catches his eye.
He steps closer to observe a three-foot tall aluminum cross with “MARTINEZ 1984-2004” painstakingly and masterfully cut into it flanked with private first class chevrons on both sides of the writing. His mind wonders. What happened? What was he like? And of course, there’s admiration for sacrifice.
The cross stood in the rocky desert sand by the Camp Al Taqaddum Joint Air Cargo Operations Terminal until 2009 when Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Distaso and Master Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Merkle, of Combat Logistics Company 46, Combat Logistics Battalion 46, Combat Logistics Regiment 27 (Forward), stumbled upon the striking monument.
The Marines’ unit, CLC-46, was tasked with assisting the Marine Corps in their responsible withdraw from Iraq by helping clean up excess gear and tearing down facilities that would soon be vacated and returned to Iraqi hands. They knew that the monument would stay in Iraq forever if it wasn’t sent to the U.S. soon.
“[Marines] made this beautiful memorial … we didn’t want to see it left out there,” said Distaso, who, when not activated is a captain at Jersey City Fire Department, Jersey City, N.J. “Our goal is just to get it back to the family.”
Upon deciding to get the monument back to the U.S., Merkle contacted their battalion to see if they could get in touch with Martinez’s next-of-kin so the monument could be given to them.
“The family may or may not have ever known that his unit made this effort to remember him,” Merkle stated, adding that bringing the monument to the Martinez family is definitely the right thing to do.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Johnson, a motor transportation operator with CLC-46 recalls first seeing the monument in 2007 during his first Iraq tour. He also remembers the emotion it evoked.
“I saw it going back and forth from the motor pool everyday,” said the Mansfield, Mass. native. “It was a poignant reminder of what could happen.”
When Johnson found out his unit would be transporting the monument home, the decision was made that instead of sending the cross with cargo he would hand carry it home.
“I felt compelled to carry it home because it was a memory,” Johnson explained. “It was a reminder of why Marines keep coming back to [deployments]. I wanted to carry on the legacy.”
Plans are underway to return the monument to the family of Pfc. Oscar A. Martinez in the near future, thus closing the final chapter of a six-year-long story.