BEMIDJI, Minn. — The emotions aren’t easy to deal with.
Some sat in stony silence, with thousand-mile stares that reflect the painful memories behind their eyes. But for all of the Marines gathered at Pete Flom’s house outside Bemidji on Friday, the opportunity to pay their respects to the families of men who died serving in the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, is talked about with utmost reverence.
This weekend it is for Pfc. Moises Langhorst, a 19-year-old from Moose Lake, Minn., who along with 13 other men died in an ambush on April 6-7, 2004 in Ramadi, Iraq. Four more died in the days that followed. Since the War on Terror began, 32 members of the regiment have passed, said Langhorst’s father, George.
"They’ve got 32 years worth of Memorial Days to go to the homes of the parents," said George Langhorst. "It’s good for the parents, and it’s good for the boys."
"We’ve got people up here who haven’t seen each other since that night, that war," Marine Chris Ferguson said. "It grows every year."
The group, a convoy of a few dozen motorcycles, cars, trucks and SUVs, will trek to the home of George and his wife, Judy, in Moose Lake today. Their son’s ashes were spread near the front door following his death.
1st Sgt. Damien Rodriguez, who is still an active duty Marine, started the gatherings in 2005 after the 2/4 returned stateside. Marines would meet on a beach near Camp Pendleton in California. That turned into gravesite visits and now cross-country trips to the hometowns of the fallen. Names are drawn from a hat, and the destination is determined by chance. George Langhorst will draw the name of the man the Marines will honor next year.
"Excitement at first, but then I realized exactly what I was getting into," Flom said when he learned Langhorst’s name had been pulled. With about 100 rowdy Marines stopping by for the weekend, "the shenanigans are about to begin."
The 2004 firefight that took Langhorst’s life was unexpected. And now, the Marines, nearly 100 of them — from Alaska, Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado, Kansas, among others — gathered under a sunny Minnesota sky, just as they did in Ramadi when enemy insurgents attacked the regiment, known as the "Magnificent Bastards."
"We were just there for a sustain-and-support operation, passing out soccer balls," Flom said.
Then, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They just started hailing fire on us," Ferguson added.
A small tent city sits not far from Flom’s home. Marines from the regiment talked in a circle in front of a garage. Beer flowed from kegs and stories were told. A group drove to Bemidji to get tattoos, Ferguson said. The fresh ink will be in addition to "Bellatore." The Latin phrase for warrior wraps around the wrists of Flom and Zach Phillips, who made the trip from southwest Missouri.
"If you have proven yourself in combat, you are worthy of the brand," Phillips said. "It’s a rite of passage."
The men of the "2/4" did just that, killing an estimated 250 insurgents in the ambush, and the four days after.
"We slayed bodies," said Phillips, the straight-forward statement providing a reminder that the horrors of war, which may be an abstract concept for the general public, are instantly available memories for these men.
And few appeared more affected by the killing of Marines that night and day nearly 10 years ago than Rodriguez, the patrol sergeant of Langhorst and the 12 others who didn’t make it out alive.
"My immediate thoughts were anger," he said. "Then revenge.
"When we were evacuating our dead and wounded, I only had seven rounds left in my magazine out of 180," he said. "No grenades. I threw them all in the first minute."
Rodriguez was praised for his leadership during the ambush. Handshakes and shoulder-slaps were abundant Friday. But the man who led his troops that night was pensive and quiet. He took deep, deliberate breaths and looked into the distance, remembering.
"Things have gotten better over the years, but at first. … It’s still an emotional roller coaster at times," he said. "It was really rough, but now I understand that’s what warriors deal with."
"They’re a special bunch," George Langhorst said. A man with an easy laugh who joked with Ferguson that the hard-partying men might have to slow down in the years to come, Langhorst choked back tears of gratitude Friday night.
"They chose to serve and they did some very tough duty. It humbles me for them to be doing what they’re doing."