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Keep memorial cross at Pendleton, Hunter says

Dec. 13, 2011 - 07:19PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2011 - 07:19PM  |  
From left, Scott Radetski, Karen Mendoza, Jon Gross and Shannon Book carry a 13-foot cross to the top of a mountain at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Nov. 10 to recognize those Marines who have fallen or were wounded in combat. The original cross burned down in a wildfire.
From left, Scott Radetski, Karen Mendoza, Jon Gross and Shannon Book carry a 13-foot cross to the top of a mountain at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Nov. 10 to recognize those Marines who have fallen or were wounded in combat. The original cross burned down in a wildfire. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times via AP)
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View the letter

Click here to read Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s letter to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., commander Col. Nicholas Marano.

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — A combat veteran and member of Congress has weighed into the controversy over a cross erected by veterans on a Camp Pendleton hilltop on Veterans Day to honor fallen Marines.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Pendleton's commander, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., said he wants the cross to remain at Pendleton as a "tribute" to Majs. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-maj-douglas-a-zembiec/2758555">Douglas Zembiec and http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-maj-ramon-j-mendoza-jr/1305276">Ramon Mendoza, and Lance Cpls. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-lance-cpl-robert-p-zurheide-jr/257212">Robert Zurheide and http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-lance-cpl-aaron-c-austin/257251">Aaron Austin, who also served in 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, during Hunter's 2004 deployment to Iraq.

"It was during this time that I served alongside Major Douglas Zembiec and many other Marines who gave everything they had, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, to return Fallujah to the Iraqi people and prompt a major turning point in the war," Hunter wrote in the letter to Col. Nicholas Marano. "Honoring these and other Marines with a memorial at Camp Pendleton is a fitting tribute that represents the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps and extraordinary personal sacrifice."

Base officials last month began a legal review of the issues surrounding the cross. "I hope you will take full intent of the memorial into account," Hunter wrote.

That legal review is still ongoing, base spokeswoman Maj. Amy Punzel said Tuesday. She had no comment on the letter.

The cross has drawn support and opposition since a Los Angeles Times photo essay detailed the Veterans Day trek up Camp Horno's hills by a group that included a retired battalion chaplain, and Mendoza and Zurheide's widows.

Widow Elena Zurheide enlisted the help of the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that has fought to maintain the so-called Mount Soledad cross, which sits at a veterans' memorial on city-owned land on a hill overlooking San Diego. In a three-page letter dated Dec. 9, the law center asked Marano to allow the cross to remain.

"Like most war memorials, the Camp Horno cross provides a place where family members, friends and comrades of our war veterans can pay tribute to their heroes' sacrifices," said the letter signed by Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the law center, and two attorneys with the firm. The cross is "a universal symbol of sacrifice. Indeed, it would desecrate the memories of these war heroes to remove this cross."

Opponents, including the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, want Pendleton to remove the cross because they said it violates the separation of church and state, and represents a bias toward Christianity.

Two crosses sit atop the hill, known as "Microwave Hill" by local Marines, that's in the coastal hills just west of Horno, regimental home to 1st Marines.

The newer metal cross was going to replace a wooden one installed in 2007 by a group of regimental Marines after the original wooden cross, placed there in 2003, burned in a wildfire. The original cross was installed by a group of 10 Marines that included Mendoza, Zembiec and Maj. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-capt-richard-j-gannon-ii/257208">Richard Gannon, all of whom later died in combat.

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