Monday, January 03, 2005

Marine Lance Cpl. Eric S. Freeman

Remember Our Heroes

Marine's death in car accident rattles family, neighborhood
Staff Writer

Monday, January 03, 2005 - Marine Lance Cpl. Eric S. Freeman was in Baghdad when American military toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein. He survived the assault on the restless Iraqi city of Fallujah in April. A week before deploying for his third tour of duty, he died when his sedan overturned on Interstate 10 in Calimesa and hit a tree.

"After two deployments, you get in your mind that he is untouchable. He can't die,' said Tiara Wentworth, Freeman's girlfriend who spent Monday with his family in Thousand Oaks. "And then to have him die in a car accident three hours after I say goodbye,' drawing out a long pause, "It's really strange.'

Lance Cpl. Nathan Olig was driving the car when it rolled on the 20-year-old men. Freeman died at the scene early Monday morning. Olig broke his collarbone and suffered a concussion.

He was taken to Loma Linda University Medical Center on Monday, surrounded by other members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

Capt. Chad Walton, the spokesman for the base, would not release any information Monday.

Olig was recovering well, a Marine said in the hospital's hallway. He was not ready to speak about the car crash.

"It's not his fault,' Brenda Freeman, Eric's mother, said of Olig, who had been at her home Sunday. "It could have happened to anybody.'

The collision sent a shock wave through the Freemans' tight-knit upper-middle class neighborhood.

"Oh no! Oh my God! Oh my God! He was a great kid,' neighbor Jean Castaing, 65, cried out when she found out.

Hours later, Jody Tiefel drove onto Windersong Street and noticed the Marines flag missing from a pole on the front of the Freeman house. In its place was an American flag.

"I thought, 'Well, he's still in the states. He's not in Iraq. What happened?'' Tiefel, 58, recalled. "This was really a shock. When they are in Iraq, you brace for it, but not when they are at home.'

The public support Brenda Freeman showed her Marine son only added to the grief. At the start of the war in Iraq, she and other Thousand Oaks residents tied yellow ribbons around scores of trees along Lynn Road to support the troops. The city then took them down.

Residents responded with outrage, and more ribbons appeared throughout town. City officials backed down and let the ribbons stay.

"The community really rallied behind her and said, 'This isn't fair. We want those ribbons. We want to remember the guys,'' Tiefel said.

Since combat began in March 2003, 1,335 American military men and women have died in Iraq. Others have died here in the United States while resting from one tour of duty and awaiting their next.

Army Spc. Daniel Maldonado, 20, fought in Afghanistan once and Iraq twice before returning home to Victorville to recover from a broken back he suffered when he fell out of a helicopter, dropping 60 feet. Days before he was set to board a plane to train in Fort Bragg, N.C., he was shot dead while sitting on the lawn of his mother's home.

"My life changed,' said his mother, Rosa Maldonado, 56. Her heart went out to the Freemans on Monday. "I feel so bad for that family. I know how that mom feels.'

Broken is one way Brenda Freeman feels. As she spoke by phone, her voice quivered and ebbed. She paused at times for 30 seconds or more when talking. It sounded as if she was shaking violently.

"He was a good boy,' she said of her son, one of five children. "He was brave and honorable. And he had a good future ahead of him.'

Scott Freeman said his son first decided he would be a Marine at age 15. After graduating from The High School at Moorpark College, a program for gifted students who don't fit well in traditional schooling, Freeman began his service.

"He embodied ... the goals of the U.S. Marine Corps,' said Taylor Gilbert, a teacher at the school. "Loyalty, fidelity, honesty and integrity were the goals he strived to deal with.'

He was an infantryman regularly on the front line of major battles, said Gilbert, who saw him last week. A bout in Fallujah earned him the Purple Heart. The wounds he suffered from the improvised-explosive device sidelined him only a few days.

His parents were scared every minute he spent overseas.

"But I was proud of him, too,' his mother said.

The Marines at Twentynine Palms were given time during December to see family and friends, or just relax. Miraculously, the whole Freeman clan was able to connect. They visited Lake Tahoe for Christmas. For New Year's, they spent the night with a relative who lives on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. Eric had a perfect seat for his first trip to the Rose Parade.

He spent Sunday packing for Iraq. He and Olig departed from Thousand Oaks in the middle of the night. He kissed goodbye Wentworth, his 17-year-old "drama queen' who he wanted to marry. He gave his family his love.

At about 2:20 a.m. Monday, 117 miles from Thousand Oaks, Lance Cpl. Olig dropped his drink. When he looked down for the cup he bought during a snack stop in Redlands, the car drifted off the freeway, CHP Officer Chris Blondon said. Olig overcorrected when he swung it back onto the road. The car flipped and slammed into a tree.

Both men wore seat belts, Blondon said, but the trauma caused by the tree took Freeman's life.

"The Marine Corps' most precious asset has always been the individual Marine,' said Maj. Nathaniel Fahy, a spokesman for Marine headquarters at the Pentagon. "Anytime one of our own is taken from us by a senseless tragedy like this, it is truly heart wrenching. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones during this difficult time.'

Marine Lance Cpl. Eric S. Freeman died on 01/03/05.

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