WESTPORT, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A Connecticut man was among the seven U.S. Marines killed during a training exercise in Nevada earlier this week.
Roger Muchnick, 23, grew up in Westport and was a popular athlete in Staples High School’s class of 2008. He was killed when a mortar shell exploded during an exercise at the Hawthorne Army Depot on Monday.
Eight other Marines were wounded in the mishap, according to officials.
Muchnick’s grandfather, Jerome, said his grandson never failed to express his love for his parents, siblings and extended family.
“He happened to have been a very sweet and loving boy. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and on my cellphone would be a message, just something to tell you ‘I love you grandfather.’ What can I tell you, I’m devastated. I can’t wrap my brain around it, I just can’t,” 77-year-old Jerome Muchnick told WCBS 880 Connecticut Bureau Chief Fran Schneidau.
Flags are flying at half-staff across Westport as the community grieves the loss of Muchnick, CBS 2′s Janelle Burrell reported.
“Disbelief, just why and how could this happen,” family friend Jim Izzo told CBS 2′s Burrell. “You can’t just help but have your heart bleed for the family and just pray for them.”
“I’m terribly sorry, just beyond sorry,” family friend Janet Horelick said. “His sisters were so proud of him, obviously, and his parents and his brother.”
Jerome Muchnick said his grandson had served two tours in Afghanistan.
He said the loss of his grandson is the worst thing that has ever happened to his family.
“He loved being part of the family, he loved holidays. He was just a great kid, you just wanted to wrap your arms around him and hug him,” Jerome Muchnick told Schneidau.
“He was a fabulous kid. Just fabulous. He was at the top of his game when this happened. You can’t imagine losing a very handsome, 23-year-old grandson who was vital and loving.”
Jerome Muchnick said funeral arrangements have not yet been set for his grandson, but he said there’s a chance the service will be held in Massachusetts, where Roger’s mother lives.
Roger Muchnick played on the football and lacrosse teams at Staples High School and went on to play lacrosse at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he studied business. His younger brother, Will, played with him on the Staples football team.
The lacrosse team at Eastern Connecticut will wear Muchnick’s number 36 on players’ helmets for the rest of the season to honor him, said Justin Axel, head men’s lacrosse coach at the university.
“It’s just an absolute tragedy,” Axel said. “Our deepest heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family during this time.”
Roger Muchnick spent a year at ECSU before enlisting in the Marines. His grandfather said he planned to go back to college after his service with the Marines.
“He was very proud to serve his country, very proud. And I’m very proud of him for it,” Jerome Muchnick said.
According to U.S. military and Marine officials, use of 60 mm mortars has been suspended by the Marine Corps, but there is an exemption for troops in Afghanistan. Marine units on the war front may continue to use the 60 mm mortars with the review and approval of their commanders. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said they have not stopped using the mortars there.
The suspension largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
Officials said the suspension will be effective until the investigation into the accident has been completed. After that, they said it is likely the suspension would be lifted.
The U.S. Army has halted the use of the two lots of ammunition that were involved in the accident. Army officials have issued no similar broader ban.
The 60 mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate, but it’s common during training for others to observe nearby.
Hawthorne has been an important installation in American military history since World War II, when it was the staging area for ammunition, bombs and rockets. The 230-square-mile facility has downsized in recent years but still serves as a munitions repository and disposal site, along with being a training facility for troops as they take advantage of terrain and climate similar to places like Afghanistan.
Even though the Marines were from the other side of the country, locals still feel a strong sense of pride in the military because the town’s history is so deeply tied to the armed forces.
The town calls itself “America’s Patriotic Home” and is home to the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, which displays hundreds of shells, munitions, battery guns and weapons dating to World War II. Storefronts carry names like Patriot’s Plaza. The sign on a business Thursday carried the message, “Please Pray For Our Marines.”
“The evening of March 18, 2013, will forever be remembered as a moment of profound tragedy in Mineral County,” District Attorney Sean Rowe told the memorial service. “You have given meaning to the phrase, ‘America’s Patriotic Home.”’
Meanwhile, training, drill and routine continued Wednesday at Camp Lejeune. A patrol of about a dozen Marines marched at the direction of a drill master. Service men and women filtered into a recreation center to pass time between tasks. Barracks for single officers were desolate as Marines reported to their assignments.
The 50,000 uniformed troops based along North Carolina’s southeastern coast rallied around their fallen as notices went out to family and brothers in arms.
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