Tue 6 Jan, 2009 11:45 am
January 06, 2009
The 3/8 Marine killed in Afghanistan
Posted by Nancy Youssef
Happy New Year! I am writing this before I can actually post it for reasons I will explain below. But for now, hello from Kandahar, Afghanistan, home to one of the largest military installations here. This once was a Taliban headquarters, and some argue it is fighting now to win this southern region back. So it’s a lively place.
I just finished an embed on the border of Helmand province with the 3rd battalion, 8th Regiment based out of Camp Lejuene, North Carolina, and I had the best time with those guys. I was Marine tough, I will have you know. I didn’t shower for eight days and refrained from screaming like a girl when the Taliban started shooting. Afghanistan is a stunning country, and we saw some most beautiful mountainous terrain while on patrol. I sometimes can’t believe they are paying me to learn more about the troops and burden placed them to turn Afghanistan around. The Marines, the Afghans, the land, the history and the complexity of it all is fascinating.
But I’ve learned over time, seeing the troops up close comes with a personal cost " a constant sense of worry for the safe return of those I just met. It suddenly becomes so personal. After I leave, I end up following their tour, praying for their safe return. I checked on the 101st Airborne Division everyday they were based in Samarra, Iraq until the day they left. Before that, I was looking up how the 3rd Infantry Division and the Louisiana National Guard and on and on. I don’t know, but I think the shared rush, fear, curiosity and longing for home creates an indescribable bond, despite our sometimes necessary adversarial relationship.
I hated to leave the camp but logistics forced me to come back here. It was a sad return indeed. Upon arrival, I learned that the battalion lost its first Marine since it came here in the fall, and his body would be loaded onto a C-130 for the trip home. I could see the scores of troops lined up outside the aircraft on the runway, and the large American flag hanging inside the plane, which would eventually look over his coffin. I decided to watch the ceremony.
I feel like no words can properly describe it. It was heartbreaking. Navy Chaplain Steven Unger, 50, who came out to our barren base for a Christmas ceremony, prayed fallen Marine and his family. (Because the Defense Department just posted his name, I can finally tell you about him.) He was Lance Cpl. Alberto Francesconi, 21, of Bronx, N.Y. He died Jan. 1 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Chaplain Unger said he was on his second combat tour.
The upbeat chaplain who encouraged forgiveness on Christmas, who had to make due with chow hall juice and bread for communion was now solemn at this formal ceremony. He told the troops to pray for Francesconi’s family. I wondered how many times he has had to stand before a line of troops, utter that prayer and somehow sum up a life of a young man taken too soon. The Marines flag was lowered as several men carried the flag-draped coffin toward the C-130. Scores of troops saluted him. The silence was only broken by those whimpering at the devastating site of it all. The back of the plane then came to a close. There was nothing to say.
But the worry set in and has been with me ever since. So for the next six months, I will check in and hope for the best. It’s what comes with learning about what it is like for those who serve.