Nation & World

Lejeune Marines killed in Iraq

one a North Carolina native -- were killed together while on patrol in Iraq, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

Cpl. Benny G. Cockerham III, 21, of Conover in Catawba County and Capt. Tyler B. Swisher, 35, of Cincinnati, Ohio, were traveling beside a canal in Anbar Province west of Baghdad on Friday when a bomb exploded near their Humvee. Both men, who were with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, were thrown into the water.

Cockerham's father, Ben G. Cockerham, of Conover, said the Marines at first had trouble finding his son's body, which is why it took so long for the Department of Defense to release his name. On Friday, Cockerham's parents were told that he was missing in action. Three days later, the Marine Corps confirmed that he had died.

Cockerham went by his middle name, Gray. In a way, he started life as a Marine: He was born at Camp Pendleton, Calif., while his father, who also served in the Corps, was stationed there.

On Wednesday afternoon, relatives were sitting around swapping stories about what a determined kid he had been, like the time when he was 14 or 15 years old and playing paintball. In the course of the game, he ran into a stick, sinking it so deeply into his leg that later it had to be surgically removed.

That didn't stop him, though.

"He kept running, and he got the guy he was after," Ben Cockerham said. "Then he came home and said 'Hey, look what I did.' "

Cockerham carried that straightforward style onto the soccer field, where, as a four-year striker in high school, he would use his speed and power to thrust through defenders, his father said.

"He played his personality," Ben Cockerham said. "If you shook hands with him and looked him in the eye, you'd know exactly what he thought."

As a boy, Cockerham had talked about joining the Marines but seemed to drop the idea when he graduated from Hickory's St. Stephens High School in 2002, his father said.

But he couldn't concentrate in college, and one day in March 2003, he came home and told his father that he had enlisted.

This was his second tour of duty in Iraq, and neither had been soft. The first time, in spring 2004, his squad had been one of the first into Fallujah when the Marines assaulted the city after the slaying and mutilation of four civilian security contractors from Blackwater USA, which has headquarters in North Carolina.

Riding in peril

At least four times, Humvees he was riding in or near had been hit by roadside bombs. The most recent was about three weeks ago. After his convoy stopped, Cockerham decided to switch vehicles. The trucks had barely started moving again when a bomb blast destroyed the one he had been riding in, killing the man who had taken his seat and three other Marines.

During his first deployment, he was wounded by a mortar blast and later received a Purple Heart, his father said.

The attack in which he died took place near a small town called Zaidon, a particularly dangerous place that had troubled Cockerham on both his stints in Iraq. Whenever the Marines went there, something bad always seemed to happen, he told his father.

"Last year, he'd call and be quiet and I'd ask what was the matter," Ben Cockerham said. "He'd say, 'We're going into Zulu tomorrow,' and I'd know what he was talking about. I don't know, maybe he had a premonition."

Cockerham's survivors include his wife, Amanda, whom he married between tours in Iraq; parents Ben and Jill; and brother Adam, 17.

He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Company commander

Swisher was the Echo Company commander, and it was his second deployment to Iraq, too.

Capt. Gary McCullar of Camp Lejeune, his best friend, called Swisher a "picture-perfect Marine" and one of the toughest guys he'd ever met.

They once served in the same company, and after grueling hikes, the Marines would have what's called a "bear pit" -- a mass wrestling match that ends only when one guy is left standing and all others have conceded.

"You took 50 guys, and he'd win, and I mean every time," McCullar said.

Swisher liked hunting and fishing, and rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He also was a world-class family man, McCullar said.

"He loved his kids dearly," said McCullar. "He loved being a father, wrestling with his little boy, putting together toys and just spending good quality time with them."

Swisher's survivors include: his wife, Stephanie; daughters Ashleigh Lynch, 15, and Madison, 7; son Jacob, 5; parents David and Mary Beth Swisher of Cincinnati; brother John Swisher of Cincinnati; and sister Sarah Swisher, also of Cincinnati.

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