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Marine 1st Sgt. Luke J. Mercardante

Died April 15, 2008 Serving During Operation Enduring Freedom

35, of Athens, Ga.; assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.; died April 15 in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, while conducting combat operations. Also killed was Marine Cpl. Kyle W. Wilks.

24th MEU honors its first 2 to fall

By Paul Wiseman

USA Today

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Even before the Marines here began fighting Taliban insurgents in the lawless southern provinces, they were holding a memorial service for two of their own.

Cpl. Kyle Wilks was remembered as a NASCAR-loving prankster. First Sgt. Luke Mercardante, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in his logistics battalion, was “the glue that held us together,” said Maj. Keith Owens. “He helped our small problems from becoming big problems.”

“It hit us hard,” said Staff Sgt. Liandro Barajas, 28, of Yakima, Wash.

The deaths last week during a supply run — the Marine unit’s first major foray outside the safety of the sprawling military base at Kandahar airfield — are a brutal reminder of an enemy that is tenaciously hanging on seven years after U.S. and allied forces toppled the Taliban leadership for sheltering Osama bin Laden.

About 100 Marines left Kandahar airfield April 15 in a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying supplies when a powerful improvised explosive device hidden in a culvert beneath the road detonated around midnight.

“The road was gone,” says Staff Sgt. Lauro Samaniego, 30, of Laredo, Texas, leader of a four-man bomb squad who had investigated IED attacks during two tours in Iraq. “This was one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.”

The blast gouged a hole 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep, stopping the convoy. Mercardante, 35, of Athens, Ga., and Wilks, 24, of Rogers, Ark., were dead. Two other Marines were injured, one seriously.

“They knew we were coming,” said Staff Sgt. Robin Clements, the assistant convoy commander. “We were making pretty good headway. Out of nowhere — a huge explosion. We could see it from the rear of the convoy. Immediately, we knew it wasn’t your ordinary IED. ... That explosion could have demolished a tank.”

The bomb went off beneath Mercardante’s Humvee. He was originally assigned to sit in the lead Humvee but was moved farther back, where it was thought he’d be safer, Clements said.

When the sun came up, the Marines found that they’d been hit in a place of rare beauty — wildflowers, wheat fields, vineyards, streams — in countryside usually dominated by rock, dust and dirt. Samaniego’s team traced the detonator to a spot behind a mud wall about 50 yards from the convoy. The insurgent who planted it and set off the bomb was long gone.

Canadian troops from a nearby outpost fed the stranded Marines and filled in the crater, allowing the convoy to get moving again before mid-morning, says Lt. Col. Ricky Brown, commander of the Marines’ logistics battalion.

‘This is what we do’

Afterward, the Marines’ commander, Col. Peter Petronzio, received handwritten, hand-delivered condolences from dozens of allied countries — a sign, he says, that despite widespread reports of divisions within the NATO security force, “we’re all in this together.”

On Tuesday, more than 100 Marines stood at attention before four empty boots and two sets of dog tags. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Nagy, a medical officer attached to the Marine unit, read from a letter Mercardante wrote to his sister.

“I want no person to ever feel sad or pity for me or my Marines as we endure hardship and sacrifice, as this is our calling with the unknown outcome being that of God’s master plan,” Nagy quoted Mercardante as writing.

The Marines say they won’t be looking for revenge when they launch their operations against the Taliban insurgents.

“You focus on what you can do for the living. You’re no good to anyone if you let your emotions get in the way,” Samaniego said. “Am I angry? No. Am I sad? Yes. We lost two men who were willing to fight for other people they never knew and for a culture that didn’t understand them and that they didn’t understand.”

“This is what we do.” Clements said. “We move on.” Her husband is also a Marine back at Camp Lejeune. Together, they have served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, alternating deployments so one of them could stay home to care for their children.

“I’m a mother of four boys,” she said. “I don’t want them over here doing this one day.”


Jason Straziuso of The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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