JACKSONVILLE, N.C. – The grim news that a roadside bomb killed 10 Marines in Iraq arrived at Camp Lejeune just days after President Bush outlined his strategy for victory, a speech delivered in the face of increasing calls to bring the troops home.
But even after learning about Thursday's ambush — the deadliest against American troops in four months — this city's embrace of its Marines, their base and their job remains resolute.
"Even when people differ in opinions, you're still respectful to the Marine mission," said Pat McLane, a retired master gunnery sergeant from Jacksonville whose Army officer son was expected to begin his first deployment in Iraq on Saturday. "We're still going to take care of our Marines."
The 10 Marines assigned to the Lejeune-based 2nd Marine Division were on foot patrol outside Fallujah, a former insurgent stronghold, when a bomb fashioned from four large artillery shells exploded.
They attached to the unit once in Iraq; all those who died — with hometowns stretching from Tomah, Wis. to Surprise, Ariz. — were from 1st Marine Division, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
That none ever spent time at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base of 25,000 service members and the Corps' largest on the Atlantic coast, didn't matter in Jacksonville. They were Marines.
"We are one community and one family here," said Reid Flinchum, 65, who has lived in and around Jacksonville for more than 40 years.
It's a place familiar with mourning so many, so quickly. On March 23, 2003, during the earliest days of the ground war, nine Marines from Camp Lejeune died during an ambush as their company crossed a bridge at Nasiriyah.
And most of the 241 Marines and sailors who died in the Oct. 22, 1983, barracks attacks in Beirut were based at Lejeune and the adjoining Marine Corps Air Station New River.
Bush came to Camp Lejeune within two weeks of the Nasiriyah attacks, cheered on by 20,000 Marines, their families and locals. Support for the president and his Iraq policy remains high.
"We all have our opinions, but the best capacity of a Marine is a mission accomplished," said Sgt. Paul Mancuso, 22, who returned two weeks ago from nine months in Iraq as a combat videographer. A tattoo artist drew the outline of a knife with "USMC" inside on his left forearm Friday night.
The feelings in Jacksonville stand in contrast to those of some families who lost loved ones when 14 Ohio-based Marine reservists died in August, killed in a roadside explosion similar to the one that took the lives of the 10 Marines on Thursday.
Paul Schroeder and Rosemary Palmer founded a group called Families of the Fallen for Change. The group wants a bipartisan plan that includes benchmarks to draw down troops in Iraq as soon as is reasonably possible.
"We do not believe that if you speak against the war, you are not supporting the troops," Schroeder said. "You can support troops and yet speak against the policies that put them in that predicament."
Other relatives of the slain Ohio-based Marines have continued to speak in favor of the war. And in Jacksonville, where late-night barber shops and tattoo parlors interspersed with faded yellow ribbons tied around trees line the main drag leading to Lejeune, loud dissent is a rarity. No one wants to suggest any lack of appreciation for Lejeune and its Marines.
"It's a shame that we lost 10 people, but these people all volunteered to serve our country," said Bryce Emerson, a member of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Jacksonville. "We should give them all the support that we can by ensuring that since they paid the ultimate price, we should never dishonor them by saying 'Oh my God' and running home."
That's not to say the deaths — more than 2,000 America troops have died fighting the war — don't give pause.
"It has an overall effect on the troops' morale," said Marine Pfc. Josh Coughlin, 19, of Albany, N.Y., who may deploy to Iraq in February. "While I'm confident in our leader, it reinforces the fact that there needs to be some kind of reform on how we're handling the situation."
Coughlin was at the Jacksonville Mall on Friday night with his friend, Pfc. Quintin Garza, an 18-year-old from Brownsville, Texas. Like the others who live and work at and around the base, he said there's only one solution now in Iraq.
"We've got a job to do. And if we don't do it, then nobody's going to do it."