Note: I wrote this article Sept. 5, 2006. Out of the many newspaper articles I’ve written, this one is among those I couldn’t forget. Some of my pieces required hours of research, and I’m proud of them for the amount of work that went into the article and that they possibly educated readers about an important topic. This story, however, didn’t require that kind of research. It was simply a story about human feelings. The men pictured above, Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, left, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Duty were with Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin when he died in Fallujah, Iraq. They are pictured at his grave in Amarillo, Texas, a year after his death at a ceremony where Austin was awarded the Silver Star. Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times
By Steve Ramos
There’s a place where Marines go to cry. It’s a place where the warriors’ battle faces can relax and reveal the unsullied countenances of 19- and 20-year-olds who struggle with the grief and guilt that accompany the loss of one of their brothers-in-arms.
“Aaron … you know who this is … as I am sitting at my computer looking at our pics from (our) last deployment, I can’t hold back the tears,” a Marine wrote anonymously shortly after the death of Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, the 21-year-old Marine from Sunray who was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, on April 26, 2004, while fighting insurgents.
The place where the Marine ventured to express his pain is an online memorial for the servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the page dedicated to Austin on http://www.fallenheroesmemorial.com, hundreds of posts from his family, friends and the Marines who served with him invite the reader into a world that, two years after his death, is still an empty one for the people who loved him.
“As I walked across campus this morning, I thought about Aaron and about that day and about the sacrifices that so many of us made for each other that morning,” Sgt. Justin Rettenberger wrote. “I have no shame in admitting that I cried today. As a matter of fact, my day pretty much went to (hell). I took the time today to go to church and pray for our fallen brothers and their families, and I would like to ask that all of you do the same.”
Rettenberger fought with Austin on the rooftop in Fallujah the day he was killed and is one of the Marines who struggled to save him. At times, survivor’s guilt seeps through his writings.
“Aaron … today I sat at work, and that firefight just played over and over and over again,” Rettenberger wrote. “For some reason, it just wouldn’t stop. I broke it down from every different way, slow motion as it played through my head. Why didn’t I go into that house next door? Would it have helped to get you out of there quicker? Aaron, it hurts so bad to think that you won’t be home for another Christmas.
“Know that if there was a way, I’d have traded places with you. I guess it is true only the dead see the end of war … I thought that our losses were in vain, but come to find out I was wrong. So many good things have come from our blood, sweat and tears. I love and miss you, man.”
The posts bear the addresses of family and friends as close as Amarillo, Dumas and Sunray and as far away as Ireland and Australia, but there is a conspicuous absence. Austin’s father, Doug Austin, has visited the website only once and has never shared his thoughts there.
“I deal with Aaron’s death pretty much on my own,” said Doug Austin, who owns the Thriftway grocery store in Sunray with his partner, Kelly Williams. “Looking at the website is too painful. I can’t do it.”
While Doug talked about his son’s death and the Silver Star he was awarded a year after the battle, he placed his hand on the citation from the Secretary of the Navy that summarized Austin’s heroism on the Fallujah rooftop.
“I have this,” Doug said, indicating the citation. “I carry it with me everywhere I go. That’s how I keep Aaron near me.”
For others, though, the website is the place where they can connect again with Austin, and they leave words that articulate the bond that death hasn’t broken.
Austin’s aunt, Robbie Ferneau of California, who Austin visited frequently when he was based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, wrote missives that describe a nephew who could exasperate her one minute and delight her the next.
“Today is February 28, 2005,” Ferneau wrote. “Although I have only posted two messages to you, once right after I found this website, and the second message right after your birthday, believe it or not I visit this website each and every day and sometimes several times in just one day. I am not sure why I am drawn to this website more than any other website that is associated with you. Maybe it’s because when I am here, I feel that you are here, too. I guess you could call this website my touchstone to you.”
Even those who didnt know Austin are moved to leave their thoughts. They write that they’ve heard about him through friends, and the stories touched them. One man who signed his posting as “Jeff of San Diego” said he had never met Austin, but the thoughts he shared on the website were succinct, woven with the same emotion that colors all the other messages.
“Aaron, I never met you,” Jeff wrote. “I’ve been reading a book with a picture in it of a simple eulogy your comrades left for you. I can’t stop my eyes from tearing up. You must have been a great guy. You died very young, but you lived well, I can tell. Someday I will die, and maybe the people left after I go will feel something like what your friends felt for you.”