A Marine’s last words

SNOHOMISH – Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Starr’s last letter arrived home more than two months after his flag-draped casket.

A charcoal drawing of Jeffrey Starr was a gift to his family from artist Michael Reagan.

It came unexpectedly, weeks after his parents had placed his dusty, worn combat boots on the fireplace ledge.

It arrived weeks after two U.S. Marines stood in uniform on his parents’ porch, bringing the worst possible news.

Brian Starr discovered the letter on his 22-year-old son’s computer, which had been stored with his other belongings near Camp Pendleton, Calif., awaiting the Marine’s return from Iraq.

Brian Starr had to fiddle with the computer to get it to work. When the screen finally flickered on, he saw an icon labeled “LetterHome.” Jeffrey Starr had written the letter in November 2004 to his girlfriend, Emmylyn Anonical, 22. It read:

“Dearest Emmylyn,

I’m writing this for one reason only. On April 13th 2004 I thought I was going to die. My only regret is that I hadn’t spent enough time with you. That I hadn’t told you everything I wanted to. Being in Iraq for a 3rd time, I don’t want to feel that way again because it was the worst feeling ever. So this letter is in case I won’t ever get the chance to tell you.

Obviously if you are reading this then I have died in Iraq. I kind of predicted this – that is why I’m writing this in November. A third time just seemed like I’m pushing my chances. I don’t regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom.”

The Snohomish High School graduate had enlisted in the Marines in March 2001 – peacetime – when joining up meant young recruits would more likely see college campuses than combat.

Six months later, on Sept. 11, that all changed. By the time Starr graduated from Marine boot camp in November, the world was a different place.

On his way home, a reporter at the San Diego airport asked Starr, “How do you feel about Operation Enduring Freedom?” – the name the Pentagon had given to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During training, Starr had been cut off from the news for months. He knew few details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, the new Marine had a ready answer.

“I’m trained to do whatever my country tells me to do,” he told the reporter.

Starr was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton, where he trained for a year as an assaultman. From there, he was sent to Iraq.

Starr’s battalion was the first to enter Iraq when the war started in spring 2003. His unit was sent to secure the oil fields around Rumallah, and then it pushed onward to Baghdad, where the troops saw fierce fighting.

“I never saw him cower, although he must have been afraid, and I never saw him worry about himself, although he should have,” wrote Major Jason Smith, one of Starr’s commanders in Iraq, in a letter to his parents, Brian and Shellie Starr.

His fellow Marines say Starr was a natural leader and a competitive, driven Marine. At the same time, his dry, sarcastic sense of humor helped those around him keep everything in perspective.

Starr, a team leader, was known for telling riddles during stressful, dangerous times to help ease his fellow Marines’ fears and keep their minds clear.

Some people thought he was quiet, and at times he was.

Occasionally it was because he was counting cards. He beat everyone at poker, sometimes averaging $75 a day in winnings. He’d read books on Texas Hold ‘Em and how to bluff. Starr complained to his parents and girlfriend that he couldn’t get anyone to play with him anymore.

Smith said Starr was the one in the crowd who would ask tough questions. He recalled several times when Starr came to his office, a handful of other Marines in tow, to ask something no one else dared.

“I always had the feeling that he wasn’t asking for his own edification, but instead he was asking because no one else would and he was tired of listening to all the unsubstantiated rumors,” Smith wrote. “I always walked away with a smile, imagining Jeff telling his guys to be quiet now that they had an answer.”

After he was deployed to Okinawa, Japan, in December 2003, his unit was again sent to Iraq, this time to Fallujah, where four American contractors had been killed.

It was in that city, on April 13, 2004, that Starr had a close call that rattled him deeply. While he and his fellow Marines were traveling through the city, insurgents attacked their convoy with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Starr and 13 Marines were forced to leave their vehicles and take refuge in a house, where they fought off several hundred insurgents for a few harrowing hours until reinforcements arrived.

When his parents found out about the siege, Brian Starr asked his son what he was thinking while he was fighting for his life.

“I’ll tell you what I was thinking later – when I get home,” he told his father.

When he got home, his father prompted him once again, “What were you thinking?”

“I had made my peace with God,” Jeff Starr said, “and I regretted not spending enough time with Emmylyn.”

“It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it’s not to me. I’m here helping these people, so that they can live the way we live. Not have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. To do what they want with their lives. To me that is why I died. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark.”

Starr returned to Iraq for a third time at the end of February, this time to the city of Ramadi. His family and girlfriend knew he was taking on a growing leadership role, including teaching his fellow Marines martial arts during his free time. But when he called or wrote home, it wasn’t to talk about Iraq.

“Everything was planning for him to come home,” Shellie Starr said. “Never what he was doing. He was too excited.”

At about 1:45 p.m. on May 30, Starr and about 40 other pairs of boots piled into Humvees for a security patrol of Ramadi. They parked at a large, triangle-shaped intersection and fanned out into nearby streets and alleys.

Starr, one of the patrol leaders, headed down a small road. No more than five minutes after leaving the Humvees, the Marines took cover after hearing a single gunshot.

That bullet entered Starr’s left shoulder, and he stumbled a few steps backward before falling on his back, unconscious.

Phillippe Gerard, a medic who had served with Starr during his previous two tours in Iraq, sprinted toward the injured Marine. Though only five or six blocks, it seemed to take hours. Life was going in slow motion.

When Gerard knelt next to Starr, he hardly recognized the vibrant, strong-willed man. He began sealing the wound, looking for the exit point and removing Starr’s flak vest. When he did that, he knew immediately that it was bad.

“I was going to bring him back. I knew I could,” Gerard wrote two days later in a letter to Anonical. “I begged him to stay with me, to fight with me.”

Starr was unresponsive, his pulse weak. Before long, the medic put two and two together. The bullet had reached Starr’s heart.

Starr stopped breathing, and Gerard cleared his airway and started CPR. The men around him were yelling at him not to give up on Starr.

Gerard knew it was too late, but he didn’t stop. He continued CPR until the MedEvac arrived.

With Starr on his way to the hospital, the Marines turned their attention to the shooter.

“We tore apart that whole neighborhood. I swear to God, if the shooter was still there, we would have found him,” Gerard wrote. “The whole company was out there looking in each house questioning everybody.”

The search was fruitless.

“I thought I could do anything, even raise the dead, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t save him,” Gerard wrote. “Every time I have a minute to myself, I see his face, especially his eyes. I’ll never forget, that I can promise.”

When the sniper set his sights on Starr that Monday afternoon, the Marine was only weeks away from completing his third and final tour of Iraq, as well as his time in the military.

“I don’t want to leave you behind, I saw myself marrying you. Having a family and growing old together. Unfortunately I won’t get to experience those things. I know you are crying, and sorry to say but I’m glad to have someone as beautiful and special as you to cry for me. I’m only asking that you don’t cry for very long. This is what has happened and there is nothing that can be done. Don’t ever forget me and remember that there are good men out there who will love you as much as I do. Find the one that makes you happy, you deserve that.”

Starr and Anonical met when a group of their mutual friends went to a club in Tacoma. “It was June 24, 2003,” she said. “It was a Tuesday.”

They became friends, and in mid-September he asked her to be his date for the upcoming Marine Corps Ball in Las Vegas.

When Anonical arrived in Vegas, Starr had a host of romantic things planned. He wrote her a poem, bought her roses and sang her a Bryan Adams song. On that trip, they decided to be a couple.

He was sweet and thoughtful, but strong at the same time – the perfect kind of guy, she said. He was more than a foot taller than she was. He made her feel safe.

Starr loved karaoke and loved to dance. And he had style. He sometimes spent more time than his girlfriend getting ready to go out.

“He’d spend half an hour getting his hair gelled just perfect, and then he’d put a cap on,” she said.

She was with him the weekend before he left in February. He gave her a star and his ring, both of which she wears on a chain around her neck. As the time approached for him to return from Iraq, they planned constantly.

When he returned, she would work and he would attend community college. He told her he’d had a dream that they got married and had a wonderful life. He didn’t want to talk about it over the Internet, he said. That wasn’t very romantic.

“I see you in my future, if not forever,” he once wrote to her.

“I loved that e-mail. I carried it around,” Anonical said.

She’s had a harder time getting through his last letter.

“I ask myself every day, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’” Anonical said. “He was the one person I could always rely on. He’s gone. I don’t know what to do.”

Starr was laid to rest June 8 at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Snohomish, after which about 1,500 people filled the Snohomish High School gymnasium for a memorial.

A couple of his buddies have gotten tattoos in his honor, as has his girlfriend. Another friend who didn’t have a middle name recently changed his legal name to Adam Jeffrey Nourigat. The judge, who knew Starr, said, “You need to live up to that name.”

Though his parents say he hadn’t been a part of their daily routines since he graduated from high school, the emptiness at their home is tangible. He’s not there, but still, he’s everywhere.

Above the piano there’s a drawing of the handsome Marine. There are boxes full of condolences from friends, family and strangers alike.

His family has scattered belongings the military sent back, including small, red velvet bags filled with what he was carrying when he died.

“That was very hard, going through his stuff,” Brian Starr said.

The bags held credit cards, a phone card, a Hollywood Video membership card, his Washington driver’s license and a few colorful pieces of Arabic Monopoly money from an Iraqi version of the board game.

They also held his dog tags, his rank insignia and his black wristwatch.

“His watch alarm goes off every day at 2:30 in the afternoon,” his mother said. “We don’t know why.”

Brian and Shellie Starr’s son arrived home on a Friday evening. He wore his dress blues.

He had at least one military escort from the time he left that street in Ramadi, Iraq, on Monday. For the last leg of the journey, a Marine accompanied Starr’s body on a commercial flight from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Starr’s escort left the plane while all the other passengers sat waiting. The plane’s passengers were asked to lower their window shades.

Six Marines in full regalia stood, saluting, on either side of the cargo ramp as Starr’s flag-draped coffin rolled out. They carried him to a hearse.

The Starr family and some close friends traveled to the airport together in a black limousine, but were not allowed to meet the plane. While they waited in a cargo area, a Seattle Port Authority officer agreed to use a camera to document Starr’s arrival.

In a brief but formal ceremony, the same Marine that stood on their porch with the bad news a few days earlier presented the family with Starr’s Purple Heart.

The Washington State Patrol escorted the limousine and the hearse back to a Snohomish funeral home. There was no traffic – police cars with flashing lights blocked the intersections along the way – and the procession sped along at up to 80 mph.

“Jeff would have loved that,” his father said.

His last letter arrived unexpectedly, and it arrived late, but that was exactly the way Starr had planned it.

Jeff Starr had something to say, and if he couldn’t be home to say it, he still wanted it said.

He got to have the last word.

“Well I can’t type forever, I know you want to read more but I thought simple and to the point would be easier.

I love you with all my heart.

Goodbye my Love.”

Reporter Jennifer Warnick: 425-339-3429 or jwarnick@heraldnet.com.

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