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In Southern Iraq, Marines hold memorial for fallen comrades

VIPER CAMP, Southern Iraq—Two M-16 rifles are stuck in the sand, upside down, by the edge of the water.

Following Marine Corps tradition, the helmets of Sgt. Brad Korthaus and Cpl. Evan James are placed on their rifles, about 10 feet from the canal where they died.

"Marines, thanks for coming down," Maj. Michael McCarthy says Sunday afternoon, starting the memorial service. "Give us your prayers."

Korthaus and James drowned March 24 while trying to swim across this 225-foot wide canal, during a reconnaissance mission.

"We are here to give honor to their lives and to speak well of their sacrifice," Pastor Ben Orchard says, giving the invocation. He hands out bulletins, with a color picture of the Iwo Jima War Memorial, which he brought to Iraq just in case there was a tragedy.

About 100 Marines from the 6th Engineer Support Battalion gather in a semicircle, by the bank of the canal. Lance Cpl. Matthew Dixon holds the Marine Corps flag, which moves slowly in the light, steady wind. The Marines are told to take off their Kevlar helmets.

"They lived their lives as Marines and that's the highest compliment I can give," says Lt. Col. Roger Machut, who is in charge of 6th ESB.

Sgt. Jason Barringer stands up. After diving into the water and trying to save them, he kept vigil by the water for two days until both bodies were found. "I was extremely good friends with Korthaus," Barringer says. "He really gave of himself. He was a storyteller. I lost a very good friend. And Corporal James was becoming a fine NCO (non-commissioned officer). I hate the fact that I'm not going to see him lead Marines. I'm going to miss him."

He chokes back tears and sits down.

Cpl. Joel Graves was swimming next to James when he went down, not far from the bank. "James was an outstanding triathlete," Graves says. "When we were swimming, we were very close, right next to each other. When he started to go down, he could have pulled me down with him. He knew if he had grabbed at me, I would have drowned."

It is a surreal scene. As the Marines sing "Amazing Grace" in a country they invaded less than two weeks ago, several armed guards are posted around the area for security.

On the other side of the canal, three camels walk along the bank.

Earlier in the day, Marines met with investigators who are looking into the incident. The Marines investigate every serious accident or death.

After the service, Brig. Gen. Edward Usher speaks to Charlie Company. "I didn't know these Marines," Usher says. "But I know the effort and work of Charlie Company. This mission has been a success because of you and them. You'll be successful no matter what. I don't know if you had a guardian angel before, but now you have two in heaven. Keep focused. And if you fall, you'll have two angels to greet you."

Sgt. Major Manuel Sanchez steps into the middle of the group and says, from now on, the two pointer stars in the Big Dipper will symbolize Korthaus and James for the members of Charlie Company. "When I look at it," he says, "I will think of them."

Nine Marines walk to the water and kneel in the sand, as if at an altar. Four Marines sit in front of the M-16 rifles, staring at the helmets.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+MEMORIAL