Nation & World

Two from Lejeune die in Afghanistan

Two Marines from Camp Lejeune, including one of the base's most senior enlisted men, were killed Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced Friday.

First Sgt. Luke J. Mercardante, 35, of Athens, Ga., and Cpl. Kyle W. Wilks, 24, of Rogers, Ark., were killed when an improvised bomb exploded near their convoy in Kandahar province. Family members were told two other Marines were wounded in the blast.

Both men were with the Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Mercardante was the battalion's senior enlisted Marine, said a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.

The bulk of the 24th MEU arrived in Afghanistan about a month ago. Its 2,300 troops are the main force of what the Pentagon said will be a short-term buildup of additional U.S. troops in the country. The buildup is in response to an increase in attacks on U.S. forces, particularly in the south, by the Taliban.

Mercardante graduated from Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Ga., in 1990, attended college for two years, then joined the Marines in 1992.

He did so well in basic training that he was immediately promoted to lance corporal, the first in a series of quick promotions, says a biography on his unit's Web site.

Mercardante was once assigned to chase down deserters and caught more than 130. As a drill instructor, he turned more than 1,200 civilians into Marines. While with the Corps, he earned degrees from Campbell University and the University of Maryland. He also served in Iraq, according to the Web biography.

An uncle, Vincent Mercardante, said in an interview Friday that the last time he saw his nephew was at a family Super Bowl gathering. At one point, the family, with Luke's forthcoming deployment in mind, had a group prayer. At the end, Luke added a prayer for the Taliban -- who would need it, he said, because the Marines were coming.

"He was a man's man," his uncle said. Even though he wasn't tall, he was strong and "built like an ox" after years of weight lifting, Mercardante said.

When he wasn't working, though, the thing the tough Marine loved to do most was spend time with his children, Luke, 9, and Cailin, 13.

Other survivors include his father, Patrick Mercardante; mother, Gertrude Mercardante; stepmother, Katie Mercardante; one sister and three brothers.

Wilks' father, Randall, said Friday that the family did not want to talk to the media.

The Springdale, Ark., Morning News reported that Wilks played football at Rogers High School. He graduated in 2002, then worked at a Lowe's home improvement store before joining the Marines in 2004.

According to a news release from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Wilks joined the Marine Corps Sept. 7, 2004, was trained as a military policeman and then joined his unit in 2005.

His survivors include his parents, Randall and Kathy Wilks, and a sister, Makayla, 19.

(News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this story.)