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A NATION AT WAR: THE CASUALTIES; Tears of Grief Mix With Pride Among Families of Dead Marines

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Published: March 26, 2003

For the families of nine marines killed on Sunday in a desert ambush a world away in Iraq, absorbing their losses is simply unimaginable.

''Right now it's surreal, like it's happening to somebody else,'' said Stan Cooper, the stepfather of Lance Cpl. Thomas J. Slocum. ''What's shocked us the most is there are so few casualties, what's the percentage of it happening to Thomas?''

Shooing a reporter from the mobile home that she shared with her husband, Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, in Jacksonville, N.C., the newly widowed Janina Bitz, said, ''It's my right to vent, that's really valuable to me.''

Sobbing, she said, ''I've lost something really valuable.''

Corporal Slocum and Sergeant Bitz were among nine marines killed near Nasiriya by Iraqis who pretended to surrender. The nine were part of the 16,000-strong Second Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune.

In Ventura, Calif., Sergeant Bitz's mother, Donna Bellman, recalled encouraging her son to enlist in the Marines in 1995 after watching him drift from job to job.

''When he came out of boot camp, he was a changed person,'' said Ms. Bellman, 50. ''He sat up straight; his posture was confident. He was confident and he was respectful. He had a huge sense of pride about himself. I was so proud of him.''

His wife, Janina Bitz, gave birth to fraternal twins last month, just weeks after her husband received his orders; he never got to see the babies, neighbors said. They also had a 2-year-old boy, and Sergeant Bitz had a son from a previous marriage.

When Ms. Bellman called that grandson, Christian, 7, to tell him that his father had been killed, she said, the boy grew quiet.

''He said he was holding and looking at a picture of his father,'' she said. ''I tried to tell him how much his father loved him and that he would always have him in his heart and how much I loved him.''

''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.''

In northern Indiana, friends of Lance Cpl. David K. Fribley recalled that he took world events seriously when he was growing up. True to form, he reacted to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by quitting his job at a retirement complex in the Fort Myers, Fla., area and joining the Marines.

Lance Corporal Fribley, 26, was a top athlete at Warsaw Community High School, about 40 miles west of Fort Wayne, and graduated from Indiana State University. As a walk-on with the track and field team, he was a standout shot-putter.

''It was just out of the blue,'' said John McNichols, the head track coach, after learning of his death this morning. ''We have all the team pictures on the hallway wall, and immediately there was a group of my coaching staff gathered around his team picture.''

Mike Lee, a fraternity brother in Kappa Alpha, remembered his friend as ''one of the strongest human beings I have ever seen.''

Corporal Fribley's father, Garry, of Atwood, Ind., said he and his son had talked about the ugliness and perils of combat. ''That's part of war,'' Mr. Fribley said. ''People better wake up. There are no rules in war.''

Mr. Fribley said that American troops had been given a costly lesson in Iraqi treachery.''It's time to take the gloves off,'' he said.

In the suburbs south of Los Angeles, Simona Garibay, the mother of Cpl. Jose Angel Garibay, 21, said the worst part was breaking the news to her daughter Crystal, who was vacationing in Jalisco, Mexico, where Jose was born.

''Having to tell my daughter over the telephone that her favorite brother had been killed ripped an even bigger hole in my heart than when the military told me that he was dead,'' Ms. Garibay said today.

Crystal, 19, immediately returned home to Costa Mesa, south of Los Angeles, where relatives and friends streamed into the Garibay home today and said the rosary in front of a make-shift altar with a Virgin Mary, white candles, roses, and a photo of Corporal Garibay from boot camp.

Her son, who joined the Marines three years ago after graduating from high school, wrote her frequently and sent money home every month, his mother, a housekeeper, said. ''He never told me of his pain, his troubles, his fears, because he didn't want me to worry,'' she said. ''He only spoke of the good.''

It was not until his last letter, March 11, that his mother learned he had been deployed to the Middle East. In that letter, he asked for a package of his favorite Mexican candy and CD's of two popular Mexican singers, Vicente Fernández and Chilno Sánchez.

Relatives said Jose had hardly been an exceptional student, but became inspired to help others. ''We were all so proud of Jose because while the girls all got pregnant in high school and the boys became gang-bangers, he did something meaningful with his life,'' said Lucina Aguilar, a cousin.

Janis Toman, a teacher who tutored Mr. Garibay, described him as a hard worker who frequently returned to the high school campus in full uniform to encourage students to do their best.

Ms. Toman said she had received a letter from Mr. Garibay only a few hours before she learned of his death. ''He wrote of simple things that we take for granted but make soldiers happy,'' she said. ''Things like moving from a small tent to a bigger one.''

He also wrote that he was looking forward to finishing his tour, returning to California and becoming a police officer.

In Enfield, Conn., Amanda Jordan knew. She just knew.

The last time she talked to her husband, Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Jordan, was Thursday, March 13. He wished her a happy anniversary, a full week early, knowing that his unit would cross into Iraq within days.

They also ''exchanged words,'' as Mrs. Jordan put it, about life insurance and ''what his wishes would be if anything happened.'' But she was not nervous: Sergeant Jordan, who had survived the first gulf war, where he was a sniper, as well as Kosovo and Afghanistan. And he had beaten Hodgkin's disease as a young man.

But by last weekend, with the news on television turning increasingly grim, Mrs. Jordan sensed that something was wrong. She could not sleep. She vomited, again and again. ''I just absolutely already knew before anybody told me,'' she said.

On Monday, she tried in vain to check on her husband with Marine officials by phone, then left work. ''I had just told my boss that I was going home because something happened to my husband,'' she said, when three marines, along with her mother, intercepted her on her way to her car.

''Once they said he was killed, I just stopped functioning,'' she said.

Apart from Mrs. Jordan and their son, Sergeant Jordan left behind no family. His parents died when he was young, and he had no siblings. He had joined the Marines in 1987 after playing college football, his wife said. Most recently, he served as a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C.

''He's just all Marine,'' Mrs. Jordan said. ''That was his calling. That was what he chose to do, and he was very good at it. He wouldn't have been happy dying any other way.''

In Adams, Colo., a Denver suburb, Lance Corporal Slocum, 22, stunned his family when he left for boot camp a few days after graduating from high school.

''He couldn't have been prouder that he made the choice to join the military,'' said Mr. Cooper, his stepfather. ''He believed in what he was doing and was looking forward to going to Kuwait. He was 22, he was young and wanted to get out and do what he'd been trained for.''

Lance Corporal Slocum's family received his last letter last week just as the war was beginning. ''He said he was going to get promoted in early April,'' Mr. Cooper said. ''We could tell he had matured just by his writing.''

In tiny Cedar Key, Fla., on Monday night, Lance Corporal Brian Rory Buesing's 14-year-old sister, Ariele, 14, was home alone when two marines arrived with the news for their mother, Patty Steve.

By today, the huge photo of her son in his Marine uniform that she clutched to her chest was so covered in tears that relatives said they had to wipe it clean.

Corporal Buesing, 20, enlisted a month after graduating from high school in 2000.

Cpl. Randal Kent Rosacker, 21, grew up in San Diego, where he played football, baseball and wrestled for the Serra High School Conquistadors. His coach, Steve Stone, said he was a stellar athlete and a born leader.

''Randy broke his hand senior year,'' he said, ''and we had an important game coming up. Well, we heard some thudding on the wall in the team room. We walk in, and Randy had broken off his cast. He said: 'Coach, tape it up. I'm ready to go.' That about sums Randy up.''

After a tumultuous childhood in Tonopah, Nev., life as a Marine appealed to Lt. Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., 31, because it offered him order and stability. His mother died when he was a young boy, and the aunt who took him in died of cancer when he was 16. He moved in with the family of a school friend.

That couple, Wade and Susan Lieseke, loved him like a son, they said.

''He had kind of a tough life, but he was a very good kid,'' said Wade Lieseke, the former sheriff of Nye County. ''He could have gone the other way very easily. He was determined to succeed in life, and he did.''

Lieutenant Pokorney, who was a basketball and football star for Tonopah High School, enlisted shortly after graduation. He received his commission after graduating from Morgan State University in Baltimore two years ago. His widow, Carolyn Rochelle Pokorney, and a 2-year-old daughter, Taylor, live at Camp Lejeune.

Little was known of Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, of Los Angeles, the ninth fallen marine.

Correction: April 2, 2003, Wednesday Articles on Sunday and Wednesday about American military personnel killed in the war in Iraq misidentified the university from which a Marine second lieutenant, Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., graduated. It was Oregon State University, not Morgan State.