Monday, January 11, 2010

Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew N. Ingham

Remember Our Heroes

Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew N. Ingham, 25, of Altoona, Pa.

SSgt. Ingham was assigned to 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Okinawa, Japan; died Jan. 11, 2010 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Also killed were Cpl. Jamie R. Lowe and Cpl. Nicholas K. Uzenski.

A Marine from Blair County killed in the war in Afghanistan was being remembered in his hometown Wednesday. Matthew Ingham was a 2002 graduate of Altoona High School.
As a kid, Matt Ingham of Juniata wanted to be a game warden. But 9/11 triggered his martial spirit, and he signed up for a way of life where the quarry shoots back.

When two of Matt's fellow Marines in dress uniform walked through the door of his home office on North Fourth Avenue Monday afternoon, Matt's father, Gary, suspected the worst. "Please tell me he's injured," he recalled saying. But he knew by the set of their faces that wasn't it. "We're sorry to inform you ... " they began. He flung his glasses down, breaking one of the stems.

Still, the visitors were kind, waiting two-and-a-half hours until Matt's mother, Tammi, came home from work at the Central Pennsylvania Humane Society so they could tell her in person.

On Tuesday, Matt's platoon leader called from Afghanistan. Almost immediately, Gary and Tammi began crying. The platoon leader spoke of the ambush that killed Matt and two fellow Marines he'd stationed with him in an exposed position, anticipating an assault. He said Matt remained calm and called for helicopters. "He saved the rest of our lives," the platoon leader said.

Gary didn't like the idea of his son in combat. "But he was his own man," Gary said. He said his son was good with a gun and could shoot a bull's-eye at a thousand yards. He liked the structure of the military, and he was a "physical kid."

"His arms are like this," Gary said, making a circle with his hands about 7 inches in diameter.

He played football in junior high school, but motocross was his love. He became a professional motocross driver in Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed. The platoon leader spoke of riding with Matt up and down hills until he had to get off.

In 2006, Matt, who has a sister, Monica, who lives in Phoenix, married Yasmin Rajpar, whom he met in eighth grade at Keith Junior High School.

"They were the loves of each others' lives," said Yasmin's mother, Shamim, an Altoona native who lives in Altoona with her husband, Haider, a native African she met in the Peace Corps. They adopted Yasmin as a baby from Pakistan and raised her here. Matt "absolutely adored" their daughter, she said. They were best friends, "like two puppies from the same litter," she said.

They hiked and kayaked together in Okinawa, where he was stationed. They saw life as an adventure, she said. She was a secondary school teacher taking courses for a master's degree. Despite the divergence of their life goals, they supported each other's ambitions, she said.

Shamim took pride in her son-in-law's excellence as a Marine. "I hope I've conveyed to you our love for him, and our high regard," she said. "He's part of our family."

Yasmin had just returned to their home in Okinawa from Christmas vacation in Altoona when she learned of Matt's death. She sounded "numb" and "flat" when her mom spoke to her Monday. She'll fly accompanied by a casualty officer to Dover, Del., where Matt's body will be brought back to the States, and she'll probably re-settle here, Shamim said.

With strangers, Matt was reserved, but with people he loved he was "loving" and "carefree," Gary said. He "messed with everybody," according to the platoon leader, but he always kept a straight face. Listening on the speakerphone to the platoon leader speak, Tammi slapped her husband on the thigh at that point.

Matt never spoke of what it was like in battle, said his father, who never served. Surely he was scared, Gary said. "I don't see how you could get used to that," he said.

But Matt was highly trained and stayed calm Monday in anticipation of the attack, his father pointed out.

Gary and Tammi flew to Dover to meet the plane that brought their son's body in about 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

Gary said he goes from "numb to angry." But he remained sensitive to others. He called the Marines who delivered their message of death "super nice." He asked the platoon leader to give his phone number to the families of the other two Marines killed in the ambush, so they could call if they wanted.

He said goodbye to the platoon leader by saying, "Stay safe, so I can talk to you again."

Before Matt left for Afghanistan, Gary visited him in San Diego, where they rode motorcycles in the desert, fished in the ocean and went to bars at night. They were buddies. "That 'I'm your dad' sort of thing went out when he went into the Marines," Gary said.

The platoon leader told Gary that Matt wasn't easy to lead because of his knowledge and strong convictions. They didn't always agree but always "talked it out," the platoon leader said. He learned a lot from Matt, he said. Matt wanted to make a career of the service, his dad said.

"He was literally the No. 1 Marine I've ever had," the leader told them. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring him home."

One of Ingham’s former teachers described him as a bright student with a magnetic personality. Leanne Sidney said because of that, students at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center were naturally drawn to him.

Sidney said Ingham was natural leader, so it was no surprise to her when he told her he was joining the Marine Corps. After he graduated, she and her students adopted Ingham’s platoon in Iraq and sent him letters and care packages.

Ingham served two tours in Iraq before going to Afghanistan. Some of his classmates from the previous school year returned to class after Ingham left for his first tour of duty.

“When those juniors came back as seniors the following fall, Matt was deployed to Iraq and that really impacted the class,“ Sidney said. “He'd been sitting in class with us in June and the next fall he was off fighting for his country.”

Sidney said Ingham also like riding his motorcycle and told her that was his way of relaxing. He had also recently married his eighth-grade sweetheart, Yasmin.

Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew N. Ingham was killed in action on 01/11/10.

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