WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The seven young Marines killed in a Nevada mortar accident this week were from towns scattered across the United States and included a would-be chef and former athletes, with all but one veterans of the Afghanistan war.
In one of the deadliest U.S. military training accidents in recent years, the Marines were killed on Monday when a 60mm mortar round exploded prematurely in its launching tube during a live-fire exercise. Eight other service members were wounded and the cause of the mishap is still under investigation.
All those killed were members of the 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Kent Ripperda, father of Corporal Aaron Ripperda, 26, of Madison, Illinois, the oldest Marine slain, said he was relieved when his son returned to the United States from foreign duty.
Ripperda, an anti-tank missile man, had run track at Highland, Illinois, High School and trained to become a chef. With the job market tight, he joined the Marines in 2008.
“You always worry, but you definitely feel better when they’re back home on U.S. turf and it’s hard when something like that happens. It’s just, just hard,” Ripperda told KSDK-TV of St. Louis.
Lance Corporal Roger Muchnick Jr., 23, of Fairfield, Connecticut, followed “his true calling” when he joined the Marines in 2010 after a couple of years of studying business at Eastern Connecticut State University, said lacrosse coach Justin Axel.
Muchnick, who had family members in the military, was “just a hard-nosed, physical, tough player that was very skilled and came from an excellent program at Staples (Connecticut) High School,” Axel said.
“I heard a lot from all the alumni when it (the explosion) happened a couple of nights ago.”
Lance Corporal Joshua Taylor, 21, of Marietta, Ohio, had one goal since childhood, to become a Marine, said his grandfather, Larry Stephens, of Lowell, Ohio.
Taylor, a swimmer and football player in high school, was a devotee of military programs on television’s History Channel. He committed to the Marines a year before graduating from Marietta High School in 2010.
“Josh has been a Marine since he was about 5 years old,” Stephens said.
Taylor was engaged to be married and planned to pursue a law-enforcement career after leaving the service, he said.
Like Taylor, Private First Class Joshua Martino, 19, of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, wanted to be a Marine from a young age. He joined the Marines in July 2012, a month after graduating from Dubois, Ohio, Area High School.
Martino, the youngest man killed, was the only one of the seven not to have served in Afghanistan. The Dubois Area School District ordered flags lowered to half-staff in his honor.
“Josh’s lifelong aspiration was to become a Marine,” Martino’s stepbrother, Tony Perry, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper.
“He took an interest in that at an extremely young age and when he was in high school, he went to recruiting meetings and various training exercises and whatnot.”
Lance Corporal William Wild IV, 21, of Anne Arundel, Maryland, had been a wrestler and a pitcher on the 2009 state championship baseball team at Severna Park High School before joining the Marines in 2010.
“It happens (an accident). Unfortunately, it was my son and six other American heroes,” his father, William Wild III, told Baltimore’s KBLA-TV.
High school baseball coach Bob Felts said Wild had always told his teammates he would join the Marines.
“He was our hero,” he said.
Lance Corporal David Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Florida, had lived briefly with his girlfriend Amy Frost at Fenn’s house in Jacksonville before the accident, according to a funeral fundraiser set up on the website GiveForward.com.
The seventh slain man was Lance Corporal Mason Vanderwork, 21, of Hickory, North Carolina. He joined the Marines in June 2010.
The men had been undergoing training for the past month at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California, and at Hawthorne, Nevada, about 92 miles southeast of Reno.
The Marines ordered a blanket suspension of the use of 60mm mortars, the type involved in the explosion, pending a review of the blast.
Reporting by Ian Simpson. Editing by Scott Malone, Dan Grebler and Andre Grenon