CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Vice President Dick Cheney (search) on Monday told members of a Marine Corps unit that suffered heavy casualties in Iraq that the United States will honor the dead by "completing the mission."
"All of you are part of a team that continues to make history," he told about 4,500 Marines, many from the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.
The battalion lost 48 people in Iraq and had more than 150 wounded. The deaths included 14 Marines killed in back-to-back attacks within a week over the summer.
"The loss to our country is irreplaceable," Cheney told the crowd before awarding Purple Hearts (search) to five Marines, including two from the 25th. "We will honor their memory forever and we will honor their sacrifice by completing the mission."
Most of the Brook Park, Ohio-based battalion's 900 troops arrived at Camp Lejeune (search) in waves last week. The bulk of the unit flew into North Carolina late Friday, when the White House announced Cheney's trip. They are growing eager to return home.
"Everybody is missing their families, their kids," said Sgt. Brian Kroon, 35, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "They want to get back to normal life — Taco Bell and speaking English."
He was one of the Marines assigned to catalog the personal items that belonged to his dead colleagues.
"We had to read their letters and diaries and look at their pictures," he said earlier Monday as he waited for Cheney's arrival. "It was a little closer relationship with them and it was a job I wish I hadn't had."
The troops are being debriefed for several days before they head to their various companies in Ohio, West Virginia and New York for more public festivities.
"These Marines are serving their country," said Sgt. Tracee Jackson (search), a spokeswoman with II Marine Expeditionary Force. "They have had a tremendous loss. Every time a homecoming happens it is significant and special, but with these guys having the vice president coming makes it all the more exciting."
Marines who served in other units in Iraq and others who returned from helping recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina (search) also took part in the events.
After his address, Cheney joined about 25 Marines for a luncheon. He stopped along the way to sign autographs and shake hands with Marines.