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Marines fight to protect crosses at Camp Pendleton as atheist groups seek removal

Planted atop a remote hill in the middle of California's Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base rests two 13-foot crosses.

Originally erected back in 2003 by seven Marines grieving over lives lost in the war on terror, this site originally established for reflection has now become grounds for controversy.

“It's not a religious spot at all, it's a place for the Marines to grieve and to grow to let go of their burdens of what they had in their soul, so they can go back down that hill and back into battle and put their own lives on the line,” says Marine widow Karen Mendoza.

Her husband Ray was one of those original seven who climbed the hill that day, three of whom have since been killed in action, including Ray.

“It's a symbol of sacrifice regardless of what you think, pray, like or don't like,” says Karen.

Over time the site has become a bit more permanent. A wildfire destroyed the original cross a few years back, so Marines and widows carried these two new versions up the hill.

Now two symbols are at the end of a brutal 3,000-foot hike that begins at an area of the base called Camp Horno and ends at the top of a ridge line that overlooks vast openness in one direction and the glistening Pacific Ocean in the other.

Here the crosses are blanketed in symbols of valor, sorrow and festivity. You'll see Purple Heart medals, pictures, books, messages, mementos from deployments around the globe and even a bottle or can of the fallen's favorite liquor...all left in remembrance.

While those symbols are at times heartbreaking, the rocks are what overcome your thoughts and have taken over the site. Each one has been carried and left here by a Marine, sailor, soldier, airman, widow or child.

Some are in excess of 50 pounds. Some are inscribed. Others look as they have just been freshly torn from the Pendleton ground. All are left as a symbol of the burden it takes to carry one of these rocks on such a brutal hike and the burden it takes to serve and ultimately give a life for your country.

As he overlooks the solemn site recently, retired Marine Colonel Nick Marano tells us, “This wasn’t intended to be a religious memorial, it was just intended to be able to provide a fitting and a dignified memorial to their fallen comrades and frankly controversy was the very last thing on their minds.”

Marano tells me no one would complain if, for example, someone decided to put up a Buddhist shrine, “No one would complain at all, and I bet if we poked around, we’d probably find something like that here…I mean you can see a very side variety of items have been used, everything from a bottle of Jack Daniels to a Purple Heart and everything in between. I think most Americans are very fair-minded and see this memorial, frankly, for what it is,” says the Colonel as he overlooks the site.

He continues: “These two memorials have been sitting out here largely unknown outside of a very small group of Marines and family here at Camp Pendleton. The view that you can even see them from is very restricted, certainly you can’t see it from the public freeway or any of the highly trafficked public roads and even aboard Camp Pendleton it’s a very narrow viewing angle that you have of these crosses and this site.”

But the area has become controversial and more known after a newspaper report last fall detailed the location and posted a picture. In response, several groups filed complaints with Marines arguing the site violated the Constitutional mandate of separation of church and state, including the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers or MAAF. They want the crosses moved to a church on private land and flags or some other symbol used instead to mark the site.

"This Christian crosses need to go to a private Christian instillation and we need to stick to things that honor everyone equally and maintain neutrality towards government," says association president Jason Torpy.

For 10 years, the crosses have stood on the hill without complaint, but the MAAF says if they don't come down soon, it will file a lawsuit and possibly hold protests outside the Marine base gates. Torpy says the original Marines, while good intentioned, overstepped their bounds by building a shrine without approval or notice from the Corps.

"These Marines were abusing were abusing their access to the installation when they went on to it and starting building things," says Torpy.

Back in 2003, Pastor Scott Radestki climbed the hill as part of the original seven. He's frustrated the debate has come to this and says, "those individuals who have poured out their life, poured out their hope, left those rock stones in mementos at the top of the hill to honor their fallen comrades and to get rid of the burdens and the sadness and frustration so that they can free themselves and make clear decisions and continue to serve in our military focused."

He continues: "I think that is an excellent place to dump it...on top of that hill. And there's a freedom there, there's a hope there, and that's what makes me upset, is that somebody would try to take that away."

U.S. Marine Gunnar Vincens says he's divided on whether the crosses should be taken down. As an atheist in the Marines, he has no objections to a war memorial on the ridge above Camp Horno, “but it is religious in nature and commanders should not bring up marines who may not have the same Christian religious beliefs.”

MAAF and their supporters believe the crosses should be taken down because they're located on federal land and then replaced with something more appropriate in their view, like a flag, eagle, or globe and anchor. Colonel Marano says Marines and others who continue to come here to reflect will be sorry to see them go.

The commandant of the Marines is expected to rule on the cross controversy any day.

Adam Housley joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based senior correspondent.

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