KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- In the sweltering heat of an early July morning, as the daily activities of Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan continued unabated around them, the approx. 2,400 Marines and Sailors of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) paused to remember one of their own who paid the ultimate price in the war on terror.
Lakeland, Florida native Cpl. Ronald R. Payne Jr. was killed May 7, 2004, near the village of Sahmardun Ghar, Afghanistan in a firefight with Taliban insurgents.
During the hour-long ceremony, which had Ron's light armored vehicle as a backdrop, the chaplains of the MEU Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22 joined the MEU's commanding officer, Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., in eulogizing the fallen warrior.
"Corporal Payne was the first to go home ahead the rest of us," said Navy Lt. John Hoke, BLT 1/6 Chaplain. "I don't mean the soil of his home state of Florida which now covers his body in peace ... I mean he is home in heaven. Surely the Heavenly Father has given him a homecoming greater than we will receive in September on the shores of Camp Lejeune."
"This is the fourth time I have been given the challenge to speak about Corporal Payne at a service of his memory. I asked God to let me know what Ronald Payne would want me to say."
Hoke scanned the crowd before continuing.
"I think Ron would want me to speak about you, because this is also our opportunity to salute every Marine and Sailor who went into battle. Corporal Payne's greatness is not in his dying, but in his living as a Marine team leader."
Paraphrasing Army Gen. George Patton, Hoke continued. "The Corps is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team."
It was as a member of this team, fighting not for his country or the future of Afghanistan, but for his comrades, that Ron lost his life.
On May 7, Ron was participating in a nighttime dismounted patrol when he and his fellow Marines encountered a group of Afghan men who pulled weapons from under their clothing and opened fire on the patrol. The patrol leader, Staff Sgt. Brian Thompson, was hit in this first volley, and became the target of concentrated enemy rifle and machine gun fire.
Ron unhesitatingly left the safety of a boulder where he had sought cover and exposed himself to the intense enemy fire to draw their attention away from Thompson. In full view of the enemy, Ron opened fire and hit the man who had wounded Thompson. Ron's selfless act diverted attention from Thompson, who seized the opportunity to crawl behind cover, and drew the focus of the enemy toward himself. Seconds later, Ron was wounded by enemy gunfire.
As the fight raged around them, the platoon corpsman, Petty Officer Third Class Robert S. Spejcher, began treating Ron when a nearby RPG blast wounded the two. Spejcher received numerous shrapnel wounds while Ron's injuries proved fatal.
After the patrol broke contact and reinforcements swept the area, they discovered four dead enemy fighters, three RPG launchers with five rounds, two medium machine guns, 11 assault rifles, seven anti-tank mines, grenades, and nearly five thousand rounds of ammunition.
"Ron and his fellow Marines inflicted a severe blow upon the enemy and stopped future attacks on coalition forces and innocent civilians," said Lt. Col. Asad A. Khan, commanding officer of BLT 1/6, speaking about the brief, yet intense fight.
During the ceremony, Sgt. Benjamin C. Brown III, Ron's platoon sergeant and comrade-in-arms during combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, led the seven-Marine firing detail that fired three volleys in his honor. Minutes later, a formation of four AV-8B Harrier II attack jets from the MEU approached and as they passed over the formation, one of the four peeled off to symbolize Payne's departure from the MEU's ranks.
"He has not, and will not, ever really leave us," said McKenzie. "We're all gonna grow old, and memories of our time here in Afghanistan will fade or be altered. Our memories of Corporal Payne will do neither of these things. I charge all of you never to forget him and the sacrifice he made for each of us."
"He will forever in our memory be twenty three years old and a rifleman going forward to engage the enemy."
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.