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Middle East

N.C. town plunged into grief by deaths of Camp Lejeune Marines

| Wednesday, March 26, 2003

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- It was supposed to be a joyful week for Cpl. Jarred Pokora, with a brief leave to celebrate the birth of his daughter before an expected deployment to Iraq. But news that at least 11 Marines from Camp Lejeune have been killed in Iraq has plunged this garrison town into mourning.

"You live, you work, you do everything with these guys," said Pokora, a 21-year-old member of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Springfield, Ill.

He serves in the same regiment as 2nd Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr., one of the nine Marines killed in an ambush Sunday near An Nasiriyah, 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. U.S. officials say an Iraqi force indicated it was giving up, then opened fire on the Marines.

Pokorney's brother-in-law, Rick Schulgen, said the family was grieving for "a proud father, a proud husband and a proud Marine" who they hope to bury in Arlington National Cemetery.

"His first love was his family. His second love was the Marines," Schulgen said. "Anyone that was blessed by knowing Fred has suffered an indescribable loss. We all hurt deeply."

Also among those killed was Lance Cpl. David Fribley, 26, of Fort Myers, Fla. His father said Fribley knew Americans could face tactics like those used by the Iraqis near An Nasiriyah.

"That's part of war," Garry Fribley said from the family's home in Atwood, Ind. "It's time to take the gloves off. We're so intent on being the nice guys, and they (Iraqi soldiers) are not going to abide by anything."

Two other Camp Lejeune Marines died in non-combat accidents.

The U.S. flag near the USO center flew at half staff and an enormous yellow bow was tied to a railing outside. Some 17,500 of the 30,000 Marines assigned to Camp Lejeune are overseas, and flags and signs in their support dot roadsides and businesses all over Jacksonville.

Matt Sutton, 35, a Marine corporal in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said the deaths have hurt the Camp Lejeune community.

"I feel for the Marines and for their families," said Sutton, now a service manager at a tire company. "I anticipated casualties. It's not a piece of cake like it was last time."

Pokorney, 31, lived in a cream-colored house outside Camp Lejeune. A white mailbox at the end of the driveway was adorned with a pink bow, interlaced with a red, white and blue ribbon.

Pokora knew Pokorney's name, but didn't know him; the two were in different battalions. He said he was torn between grief for his lost comrades, joy at the arrival of his baby and his own preparations for war.

"The training is a lot more serious that we're doing now," he said. "There's a bigger reason to train harder."

Among the Camp Lejeune Marines still overseas is Pvt. David Stone, 32 -- on his first combat operation, his wife said. Sharea Stone said her husband is assigned to field artillery in Iraq.

"When my husband left (in January), I just thought of him being overseas. I never looked at it as I look at it now," said Stone, 29. His absence now is "stressful, very stressful. I think about him, whether he is OK."

In a Jacksonville mobile home park, children's toys dotted the yard outside the mobile home Sgt. Michael E. Bitz shared with his wife, Janina, and their four children.

The family included infant twins Bitz never saw. He left for Iraq in January, the babies were born in February and he died in combat on Sunday.

Bitz's mother, Donna Bellman, said her son drifted from job to job after graduating from high school in Ventura, Calif. She urged him to join the Marines, and she never worried until the war began.

"I had this terrible feeling since he shipped out in January. ... I kept trying to picture a white bubble around him to keep him safe," she said. "But it didn't work."

Also among Sunday's victims was Cpl. Jose A. Garibay, 21, of Orange County, Calif. Janis Toman, a resource specialist at Newport Harbor (Calif.) High School, received a letter from him Monday and was putting together a package of cookies and candy when she learned he was dead.

"It felt like a punch in the stomach," she said. "He's one of the kids I feel I made a difference in his life. He's one of the reasons you want to teach."

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