By: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
January 3, 2012
Reporting from San Diego— In the early days of the U.S.
battle with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the four Marines from Camp Pendleton
were among those troops on the front lines in Anbar province.
The two enlisted Marines would not survive those violent
days in the spring of 2004: one was killed by “friendly fire” when a
mortar round went awry and one was mortally wounded while hurling a grenade to
repel an enemy assault, bravery for which he was posthumously awarded the
The two officers survived, only later to be killed in other
battles in other parts of the country: one by gunfire while leading a raid in
Baghdad to kill or capture a “high-value” target in 2007 and one by
stepping on a buried bomb while scouting an attack position near the Syrian
border in 2005.
On Veterans Day, a retired Navy chaplain — who served with
Zurheide, Austin, Zembiec and Mendoza with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine
Regiment — led a small group of Marines and family members up a steep, rugged
hill at Camp Pendleton to plant a 13-foot tall cross in their memory. No one
informed the chain of command or asked for permission.
Zurheide, Zembiec and Mendoza had been among those Marines
who planted a cross in the same spot in 2003 before the battalion deployed to
In the years after the deaths, Marine “grunts” adopted
the hill as a place to leave messages in remembrance of those killed in action,
including coins, medals, dog tags, and bits of sand and dirt brought back from
The cross was destroyed by a brush fire in 2007. A
replacement was raised in 2008, without news coverage. When a second cross was
erected on Veterans Day, a story in The Times told of the cross and its meaning
Within days, two groups petitioned the Marine Corps to take down
the crosses as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and
state. Two other groups took the opposite stance.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who served with the battalion
in Fallouja, urged the Marines to leave the cross alone. The American Civil
Liberties Union, although not directly involved in the dispute, said it hopes
the Marines will “follow the law.”
“The legal test is whether from the perspective of a
reasonable observer this would be perceived as government endorsement of religion,”
said Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the law school at UC Irvine and a
The cross, Chemerinsky noted, is an inherently Christian
symbol. But an argument could be made that because the cross is not visible to
the public and that the only people who see it are Marines, it does not serve a
religious purpose but rather a reminder to Marines of those who have fallen in
combat, he said.
“My own sense is that a cross by itself on a military
base violates” the Constitution, Chemerinsky said. “But whether a
court will see it that way is uncertain.”
The colonel in charge of Camp Pendleton has sent an
undisclosed recommendation about the cross to Marine Corps headquarters, where
the issue is being studied by lawyers and generals. A decision is expected
Photos: Marines’ cross honors fallen comrades
So who were these four Marines and why, years after their
deaths, do Marines feel it important that they be remembered?
Austin, 21, had joined the Marine Corps after graduating
from high school in rural Texas. He loved parties and football but quit the
team in solidarity when his cousin had a run-in with the coach.
Two days before he was killed in a firefight, Austin told
The Times: “There’s no place I’d rather be than here with my Marines. I’ll
always remember this time.