Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Marine Cpl. Christopher D. Leon

Remember Our Heroes

Marine Cpl. Christopher D. Leon, 20, of Lancaster, California

Cpl. Leon was assigned to 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Okinawa, Japan; died June 20 from wounds sustained while conducting combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq. Also killed were: Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Webb, Pfc. Christopher N. White and Staff Sgt. Benjamin D. Williams.

Valley Press Editor
LANCASTER - Like so many young people, Cpl. Christopher David Leon communicated online, and the motto on his personal Web site was "Our sacrifice is your comfort."
Leon, a 2004 Lancaster High School graduate and a Marine detailed to a highly trained special duty unit, was fiercely proud of the hazardous duty he performed in combat.

He couldn't understand why so many people his age seemed only faintly interested in defense of their country at a time in history with terrorists vowing to kill as many Americans as possible.

In that, he was like many Marines and serving military.

"It irritated him, and I just would tell him, 'People have to live their lives,' "said his mother, Kathi Leon.

This week Leon's life was taken while fighting terrorists, often referred to as insurgents, in Anbar Province, the main battleground for coalition troops in Iraq. He was 20.

The young noncommissioned officer made rank quickly, obtaining his corporal's stripes before two years in service. That may well have been because of the unit he volunteered to serve with, ANGLICO, the Air Naval Gun Liaison Company. It's the kind of special duty that Marines call "hard core" and "high speed."

In addition to performing as infantry in the assault, ANGLICO Marines coordinate artillery, naval artillery and air strikes, usually from a far-forward position.

It was during such an operation on June 20, on the afternoon of a typically hot day in western Iraq, that Leon was hit while operating as a radio chief on a rooftop.

The gunman's bullet struck one of the few areas of anatomy not shielded by the 80 pounds of body armor and gear the Marines carry. One of those uncovered areas is part of the head not shielded by Kevlar helmet or armored neck shield.

He died, his mother said, "doing work that he wanted to do," which was the protection of comrades in arms and innocent Iraqis.

On Mother's Day, his mother Kathi got flowers.

This past Sunday was Father's Day. His father, Jim Leon, observed sadly that the beautiful Father's Day card he received in the mail arrived after his son's death.

The corporal communicated steadily with his parents and his fiancée, Aimey Vaccaro. The two were planning to wed in December. The young couple communicated almost daily, and his parents heard from him a couple of times a week.

"He showered great wealth on us," his father said, reminiscing about his son in the living room of the family's west Lancaster home. "He was a warrior. He believed in that."

His father added, "There were qualities embedded in him, qualities of valor and nobility."

The young man also believed in God and told his mother he was on speaking terms with his savior, she related, laughing at the memory.

"I had said, 'I want you to know the Lord.' And he said, 'When I go, I know where I'm going. We're on a first-name basis, Mom. I call him 'Jesus,' and he calls me 'Chris.' "

Marines can be stoic to the point of being tight-lipped, but Leon was not that way in communicating his affection and respect for his parents.

E-mails that he sent from Iraq made plain his feelings to mother and father.

"I want to tell you how much I appreciate the attributes you gave to me, to make me a man able to defend my country," the corporal wrote, adding his gratitude to both for the "faith, morals and belief" they shared with him.

"He was my heart," Kathi Leon said.

To his father, who served as an Army medic during the Cold War, he wrote, "How thankful I am for having such a great man and father in my life. I couldn't ask for a better father."

Leon switched from Paraclete High School and overcame adversity that some young people can create for themselves during the angst and confusion of adolescence. He graduated from Lancaster High School on independent study and found his calling in the Marine Corps' delayed enlistment program.

"He joked, he called it a $38,000 scholarship, but he learned all his discipline in the Marine Corps," his mother said.

In the rigors of boot camp on a war footing, Leon overcame more challenges when he broke his foot. A bone broke, a stress fracture that occurred during the 40 miles and 52 hours of the Marine Corps "make or break" exam called "The Crucible." He finished 10 miles of hiking and more miles of running with a broken foot.

"He had high tolerance for pain and great determination," his mother said.

The injury set him back, and he spent a frustrating five weeks in a medical rehabilitation platoon. Such setbacks hit a raw nerve for recruit Marines because they have to graduate in a different training cycle with recruits who are not the ones with whom they began boot camp.

Entering advanced training and the "fleet" force of deployable Marines, Leon's determination showed in his acceptance to ANGLICO, one of the Corps' storied special task fighting units. He also prided himself on obtaining a coveted Marine Corps Martial Arts Program green belt, signifying additional hand-to-hand combat training acquired after boot camp.

His outfit deployed on Feb. 20, 2006, into Iraq and was due to finish its combat tour in September.

His unit was headquartered in Ramadi at a base run by the Army, and he told his parents recently that along with his Marines they were moving into "the worst" part of a city notorious for being infested with fighters ranging from local anti-coalition forces to the foreign terrorist ranks loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces on June 7.

In that part of Iraq, Leon told his parents, "You can feel the evil," his mother said.

Because of Cpl. Leon's affection for the children of Iraq, that insight was foreboding.

His father noted his son's mystification at the psychological and moral makeup of guerrillas willing to use explosive devices close enough to blow the windows out of a nearby school for girls.

"He asked, 'How could they do such a thing? With children getting out from school,' " his father said.

The Marine kept a journal and took photographs, intending that someday, with his intended, he would work on a book with a tentative title like "Love and War," his mother said.

His mother carefully arranged an assortment of photos on a coffee table. One was from boot camp, standing, smiling confidently, next to mother and dad. Others showed him in body armor, and yet another snapshot showed him smiling brightly, hugging a niece.

"He was beautiful," his mother said.

Plans for memorial services were incomplete, pending arrangements for selection of burial site and full military honors.

Marine Cpl. Christopher D. Leon was killed in action on 06/20/06.

No comments: