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Tankers pause to honor four fallen Marines

24 May 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Marines of A Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5, honored four fallen Marines in a memorial service at Camp Fallujah’s Chapel of Hope, May 23.

The four – 2nd Lt. Michael L. LiCalzi, Cpl. Steve Vahaviolos, Lance Cpl. David J. GramesSanchez and Lance Cpl. Jason K. Burnett – were killed in a non-battle accident while operating north of Fallujah.

“These Marines gave their precious lives in support of our critical mission,” said Col. Larry D. Nicholson, RCT-5’s commanding officer.  “I need not remind the members of this audience that the challenge of merely executing our assigned mission is daunting indeed.  It matters not that they were not felled by enemy fire, for it was enemy contact they sought when they were taken from us.  What matters is they were Marines – four great Marines.”

Nicholson spoke to the packed chapel of more than 200 Marines.  Before them were four rifles, boots, identification tags and tanker’s helmets.  They were the final physical reminder of their fellow Marines in this world.

“Whether you knew them personally or not is irrelevant,” Nicholson said.  “They are your brothers, now and forever.  Our brothers did not die in vain.  They died freeing a nation enslaved for decades under the oppressive yoke of a tyrannical dictatorship and now coveted by terrorist as a base for which to launch a Global War on Terror.”

Capt. Edward Y. Blakiston, A Company’s commander, spoke of Marines’ reactions when they received the news of the four Marines’ deaths.  They were resolute, determined, focused and ready to carry out the necessary missions to recover their fellow Marines. 

“On the morning of May 11, a giant hole was ripped through the soul of this company,” said 33-year-old Blakiston, from Umatilla, Fla.  “In one fell swoop, we lost four of our own.  It was almost surreal that morning as everyone focused on the tasks at hand.  As time moves on though, the loss slowly sweeps in.  Little everyday events remind us of them and the fact that they are gone, show us how much of our lives they really were.”

Blakiston described each Marine saying Vahvaiolos and Gramessanchez were “both with the company the most” and “could be trusted to do their parts.”  Burnett, he said, was “one of the new guys” who was “mature for his age” and a “strong, smart and tough Marine.” 

LiCalzi, Blakiston said, was “full of life” and a “poster Marine.” 

“He was a good person, fine officer and great Marine,” he added.

“I’m truly impressed with how well the company has pulled together and mended the hole that was created by this tragedy,” Blakiston said.  “But I know that the scar will always remain – and it is right that it should.  It will serve as a constant reminder to us of our fallen brethren and the sacrifice that they have made.”

LiCalzi was from Celebration, Fla., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2004.  He completed The Basic School at Quantico, Va., before graduating as Class Honorman at the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, Ky., in July 2005.  He took command of 1st Platoon, A Company after joining 2nd Tank Battalion.  He led his Marines through several company and battalion level exercises to prepare them for their deployment with RCT-5 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  While deployed to Iraq, he le his Marines on numerous independent operations. 

LiCalzi’s awards include the Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terrorism Medal.  He was 24.

“I met Mike LiCalzi two years ago and since then, we’ve since then, we’ve shared almost ever experience together,” said 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Potter, from Federalsburg, Md.  “Mike was more than a peer.  He was a friend.  Mike enjoyed learning new things, no matter what the topic might be.”

Potter said LiCalzi took up Italian cooking while stationed in Kentucky and was an avid reader of National Geographic magazines.

“He measured himself not on his tangible accomplishments, but of how well his men, his family and his friends were cared for by him,” Potter explained.  “We are all lucky to have had the chance to meet such a good man.”

Cpl. Orasee Russell, from Apple Valley, Calif., said Vahaviolos, known to his friends as “Vaha,” spent more than a year together as crewmen on the same tank and roommates in the barracks.  He had a ceaseless sense of humor, poking fun until everyone laughed and then wrestling when it was all over for good measure.

After all was done, he’s share a pizza, Russell said of his fellow noncommissioned officer.  He’d listen for hours to another’s concerns.  He dreamed of buying a BMW M3 when the deployment was over.

“To me, he was not just a friend, but one of my best friends,” Russell explained.  “As an NCO, he was a great leader.  As a troop, he was always a hard worker and as a Marine, he was a brother to all of us and best friend to me.”

Vahaviolos, from Airmont, N.Y., joined the Marine Corps July 21, 2003, and attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.  He completed Marine Combat Training at the School of Infantry before becoming a tank crewman after graduating from the U.S. Army Armor Center in Fort Knox, Ky.  He was assigned to A Company and deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and fought in Fallujah during Operation Al Fajr. 

His awards include the Combat Action Ribbon, Iraqi Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.  Vahaviolos was 21.

Cpl. Kareem Cox, of Philadelphia, said GramesSanchez, or “Grams” was a tough wrestling opponent with a sense of humor that had perfect timing to lighten a mood.  Grams was a fan of “Dawson’s Creek” and tried to keep it a secret from his fellow Marines.  Grams dreamed of becoming a firefighter after his enlistment.  He left behind a wife and child. 

He would always be there for you,” Cox explained.  “We would just laugh at the ridiculous things Grams would say or do and I know we’ll all miss that.  He was a straightforward man, Marine, husband, father and son.  Most of all to us – a brother.”

GramesSanchez, from Fort Wayne, Ind., enlisted in the Marine Corps March 12, 2003, and completed recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.  He attended Marine Combat Training at the School of Infantry and learned to be a tank crewman at the U.S. Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, Ky., graduating June 23, 2004.  He deployed in 2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom and fought through Fallujah in Operation Al Fajr. 

His awards include the Combat Action Ribbon, Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment.  GramesSanchez was 22.

Lance Cpl. Brandon Roberts, of King, N.C., said Burnett enjoyed tinkering on his truck and four-wheeled off-road vehicles.  He craved Mexican fast food and spoke often of his girlfriend. 

“Lance Cpl. Burnett was without a doubt, one of the best Marines I’ve ever met,” Roberts said.  “He was a great friend.  Burnett loved life and lived each day to its’ fullest potential.  He loved his family and he loved his friends. He loved being a Marine and he was very proud to wear his uniform.”

Burnett, from St. Cloud, Fla., enlisted in the Marine Corps Oct. 13, 2004, and completed recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.  He attended Marine Combat Training at the School of Infantry before attending school at Pensacola, Fla., to study avionics.  In September 2005, he was reassigned to the U.S. Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, Ky., for training as a tank crewman, graduating there Dec 16, 2005.  He was assigned to A Company.

Burnett’s awards include the Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal and Letter of Appreciation.  He was 20.

“The sacrifices of our brothers will long be remembered as one of the most important struggles of our generation,” Nicholson said.  “Their sacrifice will forever be a part of the timeless combat legacy of the Fighting 5th Marines, the most decorated combat regiment in our Corps.”