A South Philly Marine's final mission
By JASON NARK | Philadelphia Daily News | Published: January 19, 2015
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Up in the high desert of northeastern Utah near the Colorado border, a teen with a jawline as rugged as the surrounding mountain ranges decided early in life that he was a Marine.
Staff Sgt. Daniel D. Gurr enlisted before his senior year at Uintah High School, where he was an all-state soccer player, a defender known to sacrifice his body on the field. Days after graduating in 2008, he left his hometown of Vernal for boot camp.
Three years later, when Gurr came home from Afghanistan in 2011, thousands of people lined the highways and small streets. Nearly all held a flag in one hand and held the other hand over their heart. Little boys saluted, imitating the police officers and older veterans, when the hearse passed by.
"He was definitely a real hometown hero," said fellow Marine Kevin Daly, 23, of South Philadelphia. "They shut down the main road when he came home."
Daly never met Gurr, but said he knows him in the way all Marines know one another. He's also never been to Utah, but he's trying to get out there, raising money to complete a final mission to personally deliver a memorial flag he found in Afghanistan that was dedicated to Gurr.
"If it had been me, he would have done the same thing," Daly said the other day at an Italian restaurant on Broad Street.
In Afghanistan, Gurr was a respected leader in a small, elite Marine unit, the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, or "Force Recon." That unit operated in the Sangin Valley in the Helmand Province, an area once called the most dangerous place in the world, where the threats of gunfire and the Taliban were as sure as the sunrise.
"Yes, it was inherently dangerous," said Marine Sgt. William Port, of Vermont, who served with Gurr in the unit. "We are the eyes and ears behind enemy lines, usually the most forward operating unit."
On Aug. 5, 2011, Gurr was on a foot patrol in the town of Malozai when he was killed by small-arms fire. He was 21 and had been promoted a few weeks prior. A firefight erupted afterward, and when Gurr's fellow Force Recon Marines returned to base, they saw a small American flag, about the size of a laptop, flying with "In Memory of Daniel David Gurr: Never Forget" written on it.
It was rare for U.S. flags to fly at bases in Afghanistan for an extended period, because of safety and political reasons, Daly said. That flag would have been both a tribute to Gurr and a thumb in the eye of the Taliban, he said.
"More like a middle finger, actually," Daly said.
Not long after the flag went up, two Marines and a hospital corpsman knocked on a door in Vernal.
"It was so hard. He was just a small-town kid," recalled Gurr's mother, Tracy Beede, who had answered the door. "I always thought it was the big cities that lose them, not towns like us."
A South Philly comrade
Kevin Daly picked through a bowl of penne alla vodka at Scannicchio's at Broad and Porter. He was sipping a glass of red wine, relieved that he'd recently found a construction job cleaning out industrial boilers instead of delivering pizza as he had been doing.
Daly is not as clean-cut as the Marine who had served on student council in Vernal, but he's as Philly as it gets: He strutted with Froggy Carr on New Year's Day, and he goes to a bunch of Flyers and Phillies games every year. Daly is on the back of his Eagles jersey.
When he took off his leather Harley-Davidson jacket, his short-sleeve shirt revealed a left arm full of Philly-related tattoos, including the Phillies logo, the Liberty Bell and the LOVE sculpture. He laughed about the current state of Philly sports.
His right forearm has another tatt: a battlefield cross. And around his wrist below it, he wore a black, metal Killed in Action bracelet. "There's three," he said of the names etched onto it. "Three of the closest to me."
Like Gurr growing up 2,000 miles to the west, Daly knew as a boy that he wanted to be a Marine.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, solidified it. Daly watched the aftermath as a student at Christ the King, in Northeast Philly, and soon afterward he asked for Osama bin Laden's head for Christmas.
Daly enlisted at 17, and left Philly for basic training after graduation.
Daly, a lance corporal, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, in Afghanistan and went to the Helmand Province. He was a "point man" in his unit, he said, always "out front with a metal detector making sure we didn't step on any bombs."
"I volunteered for it," Daly said.
In February 2012, Daly found Gurr's flag folded up beneath a seat inside an armored vehicle and figured it was too important to leave there.
When he returned to Philly, he brought the flag with him.
Today, it sits by the mantel in his rowhouse near 18th and Jackson streets with other mementos: his war journal, motorcycle license plates, a pack of awful-tasting cigarettes, even a small rock.
'It was so amazing'
Recently, Daly looked on the Internet and read the numerous stories written about Gurr back in Utah. Daly eventually got in touch with members of Gurr's unit through the Sangin Valley Gun Club Facebook page and later made contact with his mother.
"Everyone kind of figured the flag was lost or burned," Beede said in a phone interview from Utah. "It was so amazing when Kevin reached out to us."
David Gurr, Daniel's father, said his son was an avid outdoorsman, and that the family started the Sgt. Daniel D. Gurr Foundation to take wounded veterans into the vast wilderness around Vernal to hunt for mule deer, pronghorn, elk and other wild animals.
"He would have loved that," David Gurr said of his son. "He was a good boy all the way through."
Every year on the anniversary of Gurr's death, members of his unit travel to Vernal, about 175 miles east of Salt Lake City, to bolster the family's defenses when the calendar's tough to bear.
"I lost one child, but I gained 23," Beede said of her son's unit. "I go to their weddings. We cry a lot, but we also laugh, too."
Come August, Daly hopes that he will be able to afford to bring the flag from South Philly to Vernal for the anniversary.
He knows that his "all-around Philly" accent will stick out in Utah, and he's pretty sure that the penne alla vodka won't taste the same if he can find it there.
But Daly knows he'll share an unspoken bond with the Marines there, and with a family he already feels a part of.
"That's always with you," he said. "That never goes away."
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