HAWTHORNE — Tears were shed Tuesday in this town of about 3,000 for seven U.S. Marines no one here knew.
“We are all military today,” said John W. Stroud, junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Hawthorne. “They are our brothers in arms.”
“They died in my hometown,” added Myra Sterling. “It feels like we somehow are responsible. They didn’t die in combat, but they died in service to our country.”
About 600 residents turned out for a memorial service in Veterans Park to honor the Marines who died just after 10 p.m. Monday at “Old Bomb,” a training area about six miles south of Hawthorne, 320 miles north of Las Vegas.
Seven other Marines and one sailor, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., were wounded during a training exercise when a 60 mm mortar exploded.
Like Sterling, many Hawthorne residents work or have worked at the depot.
“It was a tragedy, but we should be willing to take the risk to protect our country,” added Ruben Palmer, another former depot employee.
The huge flag at Veterans Park was placed at half staff, and the Chamber of Commerce posted a sign announcing the candlelight memorial service.
“You are looking at military heaven,” said Palmer as he waited for the memorial to begin. “This is a reminder to all of the sacrifices made to keep this country free.”
Rocky McKellip, a Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, said a common type of 60 mm mortar shell has a 45-foot radius “kill zone.”
The Ordnance Museum, an all-volunteer homage to the munitions depot that sustains the small town, display dozens of inert mortar shells, rockets, bombs and other weapons.
Outside the museum is a monument to 10 people who have died in buildings at the Army Depot, the most recent in 1971. Two civilians were killed that June, and a Marine died that May, according to reports in the local paper, the Mineral County Independent-News.
In recent years, the munitions storage depots vast open spaces have been used for Army and Marine personnel preparing for deployment to Afghanistan’s comparable terrain and climate.
“We rarely see the Marines,” said Harold Warren, another museum volunteer. “They may stop in town for coffee. I bought a home here because it is safe. It is a super safe town where you can take the streets at midnight and never worry.”
“This doesn’t happen here,” said Danny Womack, a parks and recreation employee who said he used to disassemble 150 mm mortar shells at the depot. Nothing like this has happened. It’s safe.”
As she stood in the park for the ceremony, Maria Morgan, held onto the stroller carrying her 3-month-old baby.
“We welcome the military,” she said. “My kids know they are the good guys. When they see them on the street, they say ‘Hi, good guy,’ or ‘Hi, Army guy.’ The soldiers stop and salute.
“This is the saddest day we have ever had here.”
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