April 17

Five Marines Killed in Iraq Border Fight

Associated Press -- BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Marines battled a large force of Iraqi insurgents near the Syrian border Sunday in fighting that killed five Marines. At least 10 Iraqis, including the city police chief, were also killed, according to a hospital official.

The fighting at the town of Husaybah, on the Syrian border, appeared to be related to insurgent violence in the western towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.

It began when insurgents ambushed Marines in the city on Saturday, sparking a 14-hour-battle with hundreds of gunmen. Fighting continued Sunday in three neighborhoods of the city, which was sealed off by U.S. forces.

Five Marines were killed in the initial ambush and nine more were wounded throughout the fighting, an embedded journalist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Ten Iraqis were killed and 30 wounded - a mixture of insurgent fighters and civilian bystanders, said Hamid al-Alousi, a doctor at the hospital in the nearby city of Qaim, 240 miles west of Baghdad.

Some were shot by Marine snipers as they left their homes to use outdoor toilets behind their houses, the doctor told the Arab television station Al-Arabiyah.

Husaybah police director Imad al-Mahlawi was one of those killed by American snipers, according to a man who identified himself as al-Mahlawi's cousin, Adel Ezzeddin, Al-Arabiya reported.

According to Marine intelligence, nearly 300 Iraqi mujahedeen fighters from Fallujah and Ramadi launched the offensive in an outpost next to Husaybah, first setting off a roadside bomb to lure Marines out of their base and then firing 24 mortars as the Marines responded to the first attack, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent reported.

Marines have been battling Sunni insurgents in a siege of Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, and guerrilla activity has surged in nearby Ramadi, where 12 Marines were killed in an ambush on April 6.

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The Department of Defense announced today the death of four Marines who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Capt. Richard J. Gannon II, 31, of Escondido, Calif.

Lance Cpl. Michael J. Smith Jr., 21, of Jefferson, Ohio.

Lance Cpl. Ruben Valdez Jr., 21, of San Diego, Texas.

Lance Cpl. Gary F. VanLeuven, 20, of Klamath Falls, Ore.

All four Marines died April 17 due to injuries received from enemy action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. They were assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Captain Richard J. Gannon II, USMC

San Diego Union Tribune -- HIDDEN MEADOWS - Seated at the kitchen table yesterday with his wife, Tess, Richard Gannon used one word to describe his son, Capt. Richard J. Gannon II: character. Spread out in front of the grieving couple were photographs of their son at various stages of his life: with his wife and four young children; as a Boy Scout adorned with merit badges; hiking on Mount Whitney; and during his long career with the Marine Corps. Beyond the photographs and memories, the only recent items the Gannons have of their son now are a few brief e-mails and a telephone message from Iraq left Friday on their answering machine: "Hi, it's your son calling to say that I love you and that I'm OK. I'll talk to you another time." Gannon, a North County native, was killed the next day. He was one of four Marines who died in combat in the Anbar province of Iraq, near its border with Syria. Gannon was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Twentynine Palms. He was 31. Gannon grew up in Valley Center, graduating from Escondido High School. He received a full scholarship to Cornell University, where he graduated with a double major in political science and history, and taught at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. Capt. Gannon was as "tough as a $2 steak," his men said. His family has a long history of military service. His father served in Vietnam in 1967-68, leaving the Marine Corps to marry in 1971. Tess Gannon's father, Hector, fought in the Korean War and served as an inspiration to his grandson. "I never pushed the Marine Corps on him, because if you've been in combat you know that there's a very high price to pay," the elder Gannon said. "I never encouraged him, but when he told me that's what he wanted to do, I was very proud of him." Richard Gannon, a real estate asset manager for the Port of San Diego, read from a letter his son sent him while attending Cornell: "I still can't figure out why you left such a great brotherhood as the Marine Corps . . . but you've still influenced me in a million ways. Thank you for everything, Dad." Tess Gannon recalled how her son met his wife, Sally, while in his senior year at Escondido High. Though family members described him as slightly built and shy when he was younger, in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a week before his death, Gannon's men called him "tough as a $2 steak." The company of 200 Marines that Gannon led was mainly charged with humanitarian efforts rebuilding schools and roads, and helping to establish a police force. But more recently, it was called to the front lines to fight. "I think that the intent was a humanitarian type of effort, but then the tide changed," said Richard Gannon, adding that the significant amount of casualties where his son was stationed wasn't getting much press coverage. "This place was mischaracterized; it was a very bad place to go, and he was aware of that in our e-mails that we exchanged. He became very cautious." Richard Gannon, who lives in Hidden Meadows, a small, unincorporated community north of Escondido, said his son was killed by an explosion in the fourth hour of an 18-hour battle. Sally Gannon, who is living at the Twentynine Palms base with her children, was doing as well as could be expected, her in-laws said, receiving the same support from the wives of fellow Marines that she offered others in times of need. Gannon was a devout Catholic who attended church regularly with his wife, his father said. The senior Gannon said most of his son's friends in recent years have been Marines. "This one woman came up to me yesterday at Twentynine Palms and said: 'I want you to know, they're bawling their eyes out from Quantico to San Diego. They loved your son. . . . He was their idea of a Marine officer that they aspired to." Among the other passions in Gannon's life were stamp collecting and running marathons, the latter of which he took up at age 9. The elder Gannon said his son still ran five to 10 miles every morning. "If you're going to lead men, you have to be very physically fit," he said. "He took that very seriously. "He wanted to complete the 26.2-mile Heart of San Diego . . . at 9 years of age. We trained for . . . 60 miles a week. At 20 miles, I pulled a hamstring, so the last 6.2 miles, he had to finish alone. He looked at me like I was a traitor, like, 'What do you mean, you're dropping out?' That's when I realized this kid had tremendous guts." Brady Clay was Gannon's history teacher and track coach at Escondido High. "He was very passionate about his running and just one of the brightest kids in his class," Clay said. "He was always hungry to understand the story more fully. So many students just kind of coast through school, but Rick always wanted to make sure that he was in an elite pool of kids. "My response to him joining the military was that they were getting one of our best and brightest, which was certainly true. . . . He obviously made the ultimate sacrifice." Gannon also is survived by his sons, Richard J. Gannon III, 12; Patrick, 6; and Connor, 5; daughter, Maria, 2; grandmother, Ann Reyes of Capistrano Beach; and sisters, Stacy Kail of Pittsburgh and Shawna Gannon of Monterey. The city of Escondido is planning a memorial service for Gannon in coming weeks, on a date to be announced. His mother works in the city's building department. U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, is helping the family to obtain a cemetery plot at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

Lance Cpl Michael J. Smith Jr., USMC

Associated Press -- WINTERSVILLE, Ohio -- A Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based Marine who participated in the original U.S. advance on Baghdad was killed in Iraq over the weekend, the Department of Defense said Tuesday. Lance Cpl. Michael J. Smith Jr., 21, of Wintersville, Ohio, died Saturday from injuries received from enemy action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. The government did not release more details on how he died. The Al Anbar Province includes areas in the Sunni Triangle where resistance to American troops had been fierce. It is home to Fallujah and Ramadi, two guerrilla strongholds. Gunnery Sgt. Frank Patterson, a military spokesman, said information about the attack was being kept vague for security reasons. Smith was among four Marines killed. All were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms. Smith enlisted on Feb. 9, 2001, and went to Iraq last year. After a break, he returned to Iraq in February. Smith is survived by a wife, Alicia; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth; his father, Michael Sr., of Wellsburg, W.Va., and mother, Marianne, of Wintersville in eastern Ohio. Smith was born in Wheeling, W.Va., and graduated from Brooke High School across the Ohio River in nearby Wellsburg, Marine Capt. Jeremy Dempsey said. The body is expected to be returned for funeral services next week, Dempsey said. Smith played football at the 1,000-student high school and had been focused as a senior on his goal of joining the military, said Principal Dave Walker. "He was able to realize that goal," Walker said. "He came back to see us at the school. He was proud of what he was doing and proud of the opportunity to serve his country." Ernestine Gorby, a guidance counselor at the school, remembered Smith as active in student clubs, including a program to discourage teens from abusing drugs or alcohol. He served as a volunteer firefighter during much of his high school career. "As I remember Michael, he was a quiet but very pleasant young man, kind of what I would call the 'solid citizen,' the person who you'd want to be your next-door neighbor. He was reliable. He was serious about school," she said.

Lance Cpl Gary Van Leuven, USMC

Associated Press -- A 20-year-old Marine from Klamath Falls was killed in action in Iraq this weekend, one month after he was awarded a Purple Heart, his family confirmed Monday. Lance Cpl. Gary Van Leuven was on his second tour of duty with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, said his mother, Christine Dybevik. He earned a Purple Heart last month, 31 days before he would be killed in an explosion near the Syrian border. Van Leuven is the 16th soldier with strong Oregon ties to have died since the conflict began and the fourth this year. "He was the stud of his school," said Capt. Fay Hutchison, executive officer of the Marines recruiting division in Portland. A 2002 graduate of Mazama High School in Klamath Falls, Van Leuven earned his football varsity letter as a freshman and won 90 percent of his wrestling matches, his mother said. He also threw the javelin far enough to earn a mention in the Klamath Falls Herald and News. "He was always looking for the next challenge," said Dybevik, who lives in Coos Bay. "I think that's why he joined the Marines." Van Leuven was first deployed to Iraq last April, after his training at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He returned to the states six months later, where he met Jaqueline Trujillo, 18, at the Marine Corps Ball. "He came home, met a girl fell in love," Dybevik said. "He didn't want to go back. But when the Marines call, you go." Dybevik said her son wanted to come back to Oregon, get married and become a teacher. He called his mother on March 18. "He said, 'Ma, Guess what?'" Dybevik said. "I said, 'What honey?' He said, 'I got a Purple Heart today. It's just a little scratch.'" She later learned he had been 10 feet from a mortar round. Dybevik said her son was killed early Saturday in an explosion near the Syrian border. U.S. Marines fought pitched battles against nearly 150 gunmen in Qaim, a city in western Iraq near the Syrian border. Five Marines and scores of insurgents were killed in the 14-hour battle and Dybevik believes her son was one of the five. Officials with the Marines in Portland declined to confirm the death, citing a 24-hour mourning period before the information may be released. Van Leuven is survived by his mother, her husband Richard Dybevik and siblings Trevor, Thomas, John and Jeanie. His father, Todd Van Leuven, lives in Klamath Falls

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Associated Press -- KLAMATH FALLS, Oregon -- The remains of a soldier who was born in Coos Bay were returned to the South Coast this weekend, his father said. Gary Van Leuven, 20, a 2002 graduate of Mazama High School in Klamath Falls, died around midnight on April 17, in an explosion in western Iraq near the border with Syria. His death came a month after he earned a Purple Heart in fighting with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Robert Kerman, a longtime friend of Van Leuven's and a fellow Marine, escorted Van Leuven's remains as they were flown to Portland Saturday. Van Leuven's body was to be transported to Coos Bay, where he was born and where his mother, Christine Dybevik, still lives. Todd Van Leuven of Klamath Falls, father of the Marine killed while on his second tour of duty in Iraq, said funeral services likely will be held early this week in Coos Bay. Van Leuven is survived by his father; his mother and her husband, Richard Dybevik; and siblings Trevor, Thomas, John and Jeanie.

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