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Brothers, shipmates, comrades in arms

OAK HARBOR — A band of brothers said goodbye Monday to the three sailors from Whidbey Island who died in the line of duty.

“You got friends, you got best friends and you got brothers. Brothers go beyond friendship. Brothers are blood. At Det. 1, I had a bunch of brothers,” said EOD Petty Officer 2nd Class John Richards describing the bond of his unit, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11.

Three of his brothers were lost when their Humvee was hit by a rocket while on patrol in Hawijah, Iraq on April 6.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 held a memorial service at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island for EOD Chief Petty Officer Gregory John Billiter, 36, Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Adam McSween, 26, and Petty Officer

2nd Class Curtis Ralph Hall, 24.

EODMU-11 is an explosive ordnance unit that disarms bombs and explosive devices. The sailors from the unit’s Detachment 1 were the first from Navy base in Oak Harbor to be killed in the Iraq War.

A somber scene greeted mourners in the Skywarrior Theater where the memorial was held.

Three pairs of combat boots. Three inverted rifles. Three helmets. Three sets of dog tags.

Next to each fallen soldier display were shadowboxes with each sailor’s awards and ribbons — including their Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals — as well as a picture of each man amid wreaths of red carnations and white lilies.

More than 600 people attended the service; sailors mixed with Marines, Air Force officials and Army enlisted men, war veterans and military wives and daughters. In front sat Billiter’s wife, April, and McSween’s wife, Erin, as well as Pam and Ron Hall, the parents of Hall.

Navy Chaplain Philip King led the congregation in prayer. With a clarion call, his words acknowledged the loss of the sailors in a necessary but unfinished war.

Billiter, McSween and Hall, like others who have fought for their country are what stands “between us and evil, between us and oblivion,” King said.

Rear Adm. Donald K. Bullard of the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command said the memorial was a chance to reflect on the lives of the three fallen sailors, but also an opportunity to come together as a community and console, in order to transition and carry on.

While the community grieves, Bullard said, the mission that claimed the lives of Billiter, McSween and Hall continues.

“Carrying out the mission is exactly what they’d expect,” he said.

Sailors who served with Billiter, McSween and Hall then stepped forward to remember their shipmates and friends.

EOD Chief Petty Officer Matthew Brodson said he became fast friends with Billiter when he arrived at EODMU-11. It was a bond that went deep.

“If I could chose one person to always have my back, Greg is the one who comes to mind,” Brodson said.

Billiter was a dedicated sailor, a perfectionist, Brodson said, who was always on time and ready to work.

He said his teammates died doing what they loved.

“The best way to honor them is never to quit,” he told his fellow sailors and Marines.

“None of these men died needlessly. It was part of a bigger plan,” Brodson said.

EOD Petty Officer 2nd Class Randy Leppell served in Iraq with Billiter, McSween and Hall.

Leppell said the rest of his EOD team was still on tour in the country, but added that the whole detachment wished they could have been at the service.

Leppell was with McSween on his final journey home. He escorted McSween’s body back to York, Neb. where the sailor was buried April 17.

Leppell recalled flying into Nebraska with the McSween’s remains, and seeing the streets of town lined with people waving flags. Men got out of their pick-up trucks and covered their hearts with their hats, he said as the audience sat in rapt silence. Schools and stores were closed as the town paid tribute to the fallen sailor.

Leppell shared some humorous “sea stories,” tales from past deployments, with the crowd. A wave of laughter rushed through the room and briefly stopped the soft sounds of sorrow.

Leppell described McSween as a movie buff, a practical joker and a sociable guy who knew everybody.

McSween’s love for his job was only exceeded by his love for his family, wife Erin and daughters Lilly and Gweneth, Leppell said.

Leppell fought through tears as he recalled McSween’s constant talk of his little girls, finally joking after a long pause that some tissues should have been left for him up front. He then promised to keep the sailors’ families close at heart.

“I’ll never be able to replace these guys, nor would I have the audacity to try, but if there is anything I can do, I’ll be there.”

Leppell paused many times toward the end of his tribute.

“I am scared to close because I feel this is my last chance to tell all of you how great these people are,” he said. “I am sorry they didn’t come back.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class John Richards and Hall had been friends since Navy dive school and later became roommates in EOD school and in Oak Harbor.

Richards attended Hall’s funeral in Burley, Idaho and recalled how Hall was welcomed home.

It was a hero’s welcome, he said.

“It showed me the roots where Curt came from,” Richards added.

Richards had been assigned to EODMU-11 just before Hall.

And when Richards learned his friend was going to join his group of EOD technicians, he was excited. The squadron deploys in small detachments and as a new guy in a tight-knit group of eight, Hall, the newcomer, had to prove himself.

Richards vouched for his friend, and Hall didn’t disappoint any of the teammates.

Det. 1 was a seasoned team with many experiences technicians, Richards said.

“He was the newest guy coming into a super det,” Richards said.

But Hall hit the ground running. When others chatted during down time, Hall was off studying the intricacies of EOD work.

“He knew where we were going. He knew he was the weakest link,” Richards said. “He always learned how to do something.”

Richards said the EOD group was close, and the relationships stronger than those in some families.

“We’re more than just friends, we’re more than just shipmates. We’re bonded together by the toil, sweat and blood. Nothing could break us apart,” he said.

Richards told the crowd of his regrets, that his time with EODMU-11, Detachment 1 was cut short because he was injured and unable to complete the unit’s next deployment.

“The day I got hurt and came off, I actually cried. The guys of Det. 1 had become my family,” Richards said. “My brothers were going into harm’s way and I wasn’t going with them.”

Cmdr. Martin Beck, the commanding officer of EODMU-11, said the sailors shone through integrity, bravery and dedication.

“Chief Billiter’s integrity was so strong it transformed others by example,” Beck said.

He acknowledged McSween’s dedication and his reputation as a practical joker.

“Petty Officer McSween may have been a rascal, but he always did what was right, earning the implicit trust of his OIC, his chief and his leading petty officer,” Beck said.

And he said he knew Hall as a hard worker.

“Also young and new to the command, Petty Officer Hall’s unbridled enthusiasm and boundless energy never faltered on the field of glory or on the basketball court,” he said.

“These three men were the Navy’s best. Divers. Paratroopers. Weapons specialists,” he said. “Three of America’s best. These guys are my guys.”

Looked upon for his leadership in these tough times, Beck said he didn’t have all the answers.

“I’m struggling to understand the reason why this tragedy was suffered upon us. No matter what our religious or philosophical convictions may be, there is one inescapable truth: Good and evil are at war,” he said.

Yet, he added, the challenge remains.

“We cannot falter; our investment has been too great. Our brothers, our shipmates, our comrades-in-arms have made the ultimate sacrifice for each other, for their families, for our nation for our freedom,” he said.

“We can offer nothing less than to carry on in their honor.”

Beck concluded the ceremony by reading the citations the men were given posthumously for the Bronze Star with Valor, and the Purple Heart.

According to the sailors’ citations for the Bronze Star, the group responded to 13 roadside bomb incidents, an incident involving a bomb in a vehicle, as well as 13 other incidents involving suspected “improvised explosive devices” or fake IEDs. The team also helped collect and destroy more than 2 1/2 tons of explosives.

The service concluded with a poignant final roll call. A sailor read the roster of EODMU-11 members and each sailor there answered, the room then dropping into silence as the names of Billiter, McSween and Hall were called out three times each and no answer echoed back.

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