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|Sunday, 19-Mar-2006 12:00
2/2 Company G - LCpl Tony Gilliard
March 19, 2006
From The Morning Call
On war's anniversary, a family mourns, another worries
Liberty grad killed in Iraq last winter; injured schoolmate yearns to return to combat.
By Matt Assad
Of The Morning Call
As he sank into the couch in his parents' Freemansburg home, the shrapnel scar visible behind his ear, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Tony Gilliard clicked through an electronic photo album of the guys he spent nine months with, fighting side-by-side in Iraq.
He'd grown to regard many of them almost as brothers. As he moved from page to page he matter-of-factly ticked off the grim details of how his extended family had shrunk so quickly.
''That's Kenny, he got hit with a [bomb], and Ramone here got torn up by one, too, but at least he's still with us,'' Gilliard said, clicking to another page. ''Cabino and Chevy are dead, and Herbert here, he lost sight in his eye and his jaw is pretty torn up, but he's alive. This guy right here, that's Doc Vega. He's the guy who saved my life.''
Through at least 10 major firefights and more roadside bombings than Gilliard can count, he said, more than half of the 47 members of his Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines have been killed or injured in battles near Fallujah — a place that remains one of Iraq's most unstable regions.
The Marines are among the more-than 2,300 American troops who have been killed and the more-than 17,000 who have been injured since the Iraq War began three years ago today.
Gilliard has seen so much death that he's come to regard it as part of the job. And it doesn't stop him from wanting to go back to the Middle East.
Crosstown in Bethlehem, the family of Gilliard's Liberty High School friend, Kyle Grimes, is still trying to come to grips with one death.
Grimes, a 21-year-old corporal, and 30 other U.S. troops were killed in a helicopter crash west of Baghdad in late January 2005. Grimes' death not only brought a feeling of loss to the tight circle of friends at the Monocacy Field & Stream social club in Bethlehem, where his and Gilliard's parents are members, but it also brought a sense of heightened anxiety. Even as Liberty's Grenadier Band played ''Amazing Grace'' in Grimes' funeral procession in February, Tony Gilliard was training to leave for the war.
Pursuing a dream
Kyle Grimes was the senior who had dreamed of being a Marine since he was 4 years old. Gilliard was the gung-ho freshman who also had a lifetime dream of becoming a Marine. Both also liked wrestling and dreamed of getting into the FBI.
Mary LeVan, who now lives in Baton Rouge, La., remembers her son Kyle's wide-eyed reaction when he playfully tried on his grandfather's Marine uniform, and how he had made up his mind, almost in that instant, that he would one day be a Marine.
Kyle Grimes wrestled and played football at Liberty, but his single-minded focus on his goal helped him become an expert marksman in the Corps, and ultimately it put him on that helicopter that day when LeVan's worst nightmare came true.
''People ask me if it ever gets any better, and I can honestly say, no, it never does,'' LeVan said. ''You learn to live with it, but that horrible feeling never goes away.''
Robert Grimes still can't talk about his son's death, and Kyle Grimes' grandmother, Kathleen Grimes, is finding late winter particularly difficult. With the one-year anniversary of his death came well-wishing e-mails from military families from across the nation. With each e-mail came a reminder of the loss, along with comfort that others share their pain.
''February will probably always be a difficult month for us,'' Kathleen Grimes said. ''Kyle had his heart set on being a Marine since before he could spell Marine. We didn't want him to enlist, but you can't tell a kid he can't pursue his dream.''
Tony Gilliard's mother, Monique Fetter, and stepfather, Angelo Fetter, are dealing with that dilemma now. On Christmas Eve as Gilliard lay unable to move, with pieces of shrapnel searing into his flesh, he never reconsidered a decision he had already made. He will re-enlist, he says, despite all of the close calls, the loss of his high school friend and even the anxiety it brings his family every day. Much as it was for Kyle Grimes, being a Marine has been his lifelong dream.
''I'm not afraid,'' Gilliard said. ''They [Marine doctors] keep asking me how I feel about all this, but I don't want to answer their questions. I just want to do my job. Why would I want to quit a job I like?''
Monique Fetter sees a lot of reasons, many of them contained in the pain she sees the Grimes family enduring. At the Monocacy Field & Stream social club a picture of Kyle Grimes hangs behind the bar just a few paces from the Marine Corps flag Angelo Fetter waved from the back of his Harley-Davidson in the funeral procession.
And she sees plenty of reasons not to enlist in that photo album her son keeps on his laptop computer.
A call home on Christmas
Company G spent 10 months hunting insurgents, in some cases doing home-to-home searches, in the unstable areas near Fallujah. At least 10 times the company was engaged in firefights that lasted 30 to 60 minutes against attacking insurgents, and it hit several roadside bombs. Gilliard, without emotion, recalls the day that an Iraqi woman approached him. Anywhere else it may have appeared as nothing more than a woman with a question, but not in Iraq.
The woman had a grenade tucked in her left armpit and she was trying to get close enough to kill as many U.S. troops as possible. She was subdued before she could detonate the grenade, Gilliard said.
''When we're approached by an Iraqi woman we know something's not right,'' Gilliard said. ''They don't talk to other men, especially American soldiers, or they face consequences at home.''
He excitedly recalled when, after spending weeks traveling the countryside in search of insurgents, his company assumed control of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces with its marble floors and gold-plated toilet seats.
Gilliard's luck ran out on Christmas Eve. He was playing chess with a fellow soldier when their base in Fallujah was attacked by insurgents armed with pistols, rifles, rocket propelled grenades and machine guns. They attacked the base, Gilliard theorized, because it was in the same building as the Iraqi police station and the insurgents wanted to discourage police from helping American troops.
Gilliard grabbed his M-16 rifle and his 9mm handgun and ran to the roof with an Iraqi officer. Minutes later a grenade went off a few paces away, dislocating his shoulder and driving hot metal into both legs and the side of his head.
''I could feel my knee burning, but I never thought I was going to die,'' Gilliard said. ''I couldn't move, but I just kept thinking, 'Get up and get your rifle.'''
That's when medic Jayson Sepulvedavega grabbed him by the back of his vest and dragged him to safety. The vest had a spray of bullets across the front, but none of them reached Gilliard's body.
When the battle was done, seven American soldiers were injured, 14 insurgents were dead, and Gilliard was in an Iraqi hospital.
Gilliard called home Christmas morning, asked for his stepfather and made him promise to wait a day to tell his mother about the injury. He didn't want to ruin his mother's Christmas, but sometimes a mother just knows.
''I knew something was wrong when he wouldn't talk to me, and it bothered me all day,'' Monique Fetter said. ''It's scary, and now he's going back.''
Unfazed by injury
For all of their similarities, there is one area where Grimes and Gilliard differed. In contrast to Grimes' Marines-first attitude, in the days before his helicopter went down he wrote eerie letters home, telling of his fear that he could die in battle at any time, and regretting that he might never get a chance to marry and have children. By then he had toured the campus of Louisiana State University during leave and he had decided he would not re-enlist. He was fighting to get to the end of his tour, he told his mother.
Gilliard, however, is fighting to get back to war.
Gilliard is going back to his unit — or at least that's his plan. After recovering at home in Freemansburg for about a month, Gilliard left last month to rejoin his unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where it has been stationed since returning from Iraq in February. But when tests taken at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda showed he still suffered memory loss from his injury, his plans were delayed.
He says he'll keep taking the test until he passes because Company G will soon begin training to go to Afghanistan and Gilliard plans to be with them. When the time comes in a few months, Gilliard — if he's deemed healthy — will re-enlist for another four years.
Unlike his friends, he enjoys the running and training, and he can't pass up the $30,000 enlistment bonus being offered. And unlike Grimes, he has not been jolted by his mortality.
For his mother, that means four more years of worry.
''Part of me wants him to fail those tests because then I won't have to worry so much,'' Fetter said. ''But on the other hand, it's his dream going down the tubes, and I don't want that. It's terrible to be so torn.''
The Grimes family knows that feeling. In the months before his son was killed last year, Robert Grimes would tell his friends at the social club that he feared going home because he was afraid Marine officials would be there with bad news. He knew his son had dreamed of wearing the uniform since he wrote ''I want to be a mreen'' for a first-grade school assignment, but still the worry never seemed to subside.
Monique and Angelo Fetter remember the day that bad news came. They remember it most because Tony Gilliard was just a few days from shipping off to Iraq.
''Bobby told us 'don't worry the way I did or it might happen,''' Angelo Fetter recalled. ''But how do you not worry? People are dying over there.''
Copyright © 2006, The Morning Call