AL ASAD, Iraq -- Every day of work for the Moonlighters of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 brings a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice paid by Marines, Soldiers and Sailors in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Next to a five room building where the Moonlighters house the central hub of their squadron’s F/A-18 Hornet maintenance sections stands the Moonlighter Wall of Remembrance. The six-foot high board is dominated by rows of the Marine Corps insignia, an eagle, globe, and anchor, each representing a Marine killed in action since the squadron’s arrival in August.
“The intention for the board was to keep our Marines focused on the true reason we are here, to support our brothers on the ground,” said Lt. Col. David A. Wilbur, the squadron’s commanding officer and a Birmingham, Ala., native. “We wanted a reminder for our Marines because they don’t get to see the ground combat element we are supporting, and they don’t always see the sacrifices made.”
Each insignia bears the date a service member was killed in action, their name, age, hometown and unit. These details make every Moonlighter pause and reflect on their individual role in the fight, Wilbur said.
“The inspiration for this was some comments made to our squadron by Lt. Gen. James Amos (commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force) before we deployed,” Wilbur said. “He said he always tried to keep his Marines focused on their true mission, supporting the troops, when he was the Wing commander. It can be hard for Wing Marines to remember how important they are when they are removed from the fight. When they see a new name on this board, it breaks their hearts not to be out there fighting alongside their brothers. You can see in their eyes they would trade their wrenches for rifles in an instant.”
The wall stands less than 100 yards away from where the squadron’s lead aircraft is normally parked. The tail of this Hornet flies with the squadron’s logo and trademark polka dots as well as the 2nd Marine Division insignia. The combination of the aircraft paint and wall of remembrance were purposely placed in a central area, said Sgt. Maj. Nicholas J. Bourikas, the Moonlighters’ squadron sergeant major and a Altamonte Springs, Fla., native.
“We wanted every Marine to see this stuff every day,” Bourikas said. “It is the one spot every Marine in the squadron can see every day. We want everyone to consider the memory of the fallen every day, coming on or off shift. It forces them to recognize the value their individual skills have here.”
Although the project was initiated by the squadron’s command, the Marines took over and have maintained control of the wall since its inception.
“At first I did not realize the impact it was going to have,” Wilbur said. “The Marines took it and now it is truly theirs. They maintain it, they oversee it and if I tried to change it, they probably wouldn’t speak to me.”
Gunnery Sgt. Rene R. Benedit, the squadron’s quality assurance chief and a Miami native, requested the task of monitoring casualties in the theater and overseeing upkeep of the wall. Benedit checks a casualty information website daily and informs the Marines if a name needs to be added to the wall.
“The least we can do for these heroes is give up two or three minutes of our time to honor their sacrifice,” Benedit said. “If I have a confirmed casualty, I find a Marine of equal rank and have them put the information on the wall. This gives that Marine a chance to think about what we are doing here and how serious it is.”
Adding a name to the wall can be difficult for the Marines, but it is a job they all take seriously, Benedit said.
“I’ve had a couple of real tough Marines come to me with tears in their eyes and say they really don’t want to do it,” Benedit said. “But, they do it anyway. You can see that every name sits in their heads and hearts.”
The wall also helps the Marines break through the emotional blockade afforded by simple numbers and statistics, Benedit said.
“We don’t just throw up a number,” Benedit said. “We put their name, age and hometown. I read as much as I can about each KIA so I can tell the Marines who they were, so I can explain to them that these were normal guys out here fighting for freedom just like the rest of us.”
The wall makes for a solemn sight in a place where most commanders are looking for ways to increase the morale and motivation of their junior service members, but the Moonlighters have taken the meaning of it to heart, Wilbur said.
“These Marines are tired and hot and they can walk by that board one day and see fresh paint on it and it breaks their hearts,” Wilbur said. “But they understand because they care. If they didn’t care, if it didn’t hurt their hearts, then I’d be worried about their morale. They use it as motivation to work just a little harder, and they remember why we are out here, why they push themselves beyond hot and tired. They are working to keep more names off that board.”
Benedit, a father of four, said the project has taken a personal toll on him, but he believes it is an important weight to carry.
“I have kids from eight months to ten years and when I see names of 18 and 19 year old kids, it takes a huge toll on me as a father, but I want our Marines to see the faces behind the figures,” Benedit said. “I can’t imagine how I would feel if I lost a child. No father or mother should ever outlive their children. The parents of the fallen should always be remembered for the sacrifices they have endured.”
The wall has made a big impact on the hearts and minds of the Moonlighters, but all would be happier if it would collect layers of dust instead of more paint, during the rest of their deployment, Bourikas said.
“What they really want is no more days of walking by the wall and seeing a new name,” Bourikas said. “That’s the goal. Every Marine in this squadron wants to do their part to get to that point.”
Although the wall is planted in a patch of rough Iraqi desert, the Marines have taken up the habit of pouring a few bottles of water beneath it in the hopes of growing some type of grass, Benedit said.
“Amazingly, a little green has actually sprung up,” Benedit said. “It’s really rewarding to see young Marines take to something like this. I’m really proud of the way they have handled it and the maturity and dedication they have shown.”
When the sun sets on another day of work for the Moonlighters, each of them hopes their efforts have kept another name off the wall, Bourikas said.
“I’ve served with the Marines who are on the ground out there right now, so I think it’s ironic that I’ve now got Marines who are dedicating their work to them,” Bourikas said. “It makes me proud, not only as their leader, but as a Marine. This is a band of brothers, simple as that.”