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UPDATED: Family, friends, community mourn local Marine killed in Afghanistan

Prayer vigil for Pfc. Jake William Suter set for 7 p.m. Wednesday

Posted: May 31, 2010 7:56 p.m.
Updated: June 3, 2010 12:00 p.m.

A Marine carry team lifts a transfer case containing the remains of Pfc. Jake W. Suter at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Monday, May 31. Suter, of Stevenson Ranch, died May 29 while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, according to the Department of Defense.

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Editor's note: The transcript of an exclusive Signal interview with Pfc. Suter's father, Chris Unthank, conducted after press time Monday night, follows the story below.

Those attending Memorial Day events at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall on Monday had arrived ready to reflect on memories of fallen heroes, but few expected so recent a memory as that of young United States Marine Corps Pfc. Jake William Suter, killed in Afghanistan on Saturday morning, Afghanistan time.

Suter, 18, who lived in Stevenson Ranch and was a 2009 graduate of West Ranch High School, died after landing in the war-torn nation just a week earlier.

UPDATES: Assigned to 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, Pfc. Suter died while supporting combat operations as part of Regimental Combat Team 7 in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

The incident is still under investigation, according to a Department of Defense news release Tuesday.

He enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 2009 and attended the School of Infantry in September that year, according to a spokesman at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Thursday.

Suter joined the 3rd Battalion as an assaultman with Lima Company in May 2010. His unit deployed to Afghanistan May 13 to conduct counterinsurgency operations partnered with Afghan National Security Forces. It was Suter's first deployment.

His personal decorations include the National Defense Service and Global War on Terrorism Service Medals.

The incident remained under investigation as of Thursday mid-day. 

"He wanted to be a Marine so badly and he did it so well," said his friend Nathan Ure, who recalls a time not too long ago when Suter walked into his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, proudly wearing his Marine uniform.

"I'm so proud of him," Ure said. "Everyone enjoys freedom, but few do something about it, to protect it."

On his own Facebook page, where Suter listed the United States Marine Corps as his employer since June 2009, he wrote: "I am a Marine in more than just profession but in everything I am."

Since news of Suter's death reached Santa Clarita, friends from church and high school have been filling Facebook pages with praise and love.

"What he was doing, he loved," Ure said. "This really hit me hard."

In a message posted on her blog Nov. 2, 2009, Suter's mother, Michelle Unthank, says:

"He is in good spirits and enjoying his SOI (School of Infantry) training which he will graduate in 1 month. He is an assaultman - #0351(25 in his PLT or Co., can't remember) - ITB (Infantry Training Battalion), Alpha Co., (300+ boys), weapons platoon (100+). He has hiked and ran many miles through the hills of SD, shot rifles, AT-4 rocket launchers ...

"I'm happy that they are taking pride and expect nothing but perfection ... As they are getting combat ready in SOI, the attention to detail will be life and death later. We love all the Marines - especially the ALPHA Co."

After training briefly in Hawaii, Suter returned to Stevenson Ranch with "stories about boot camp" and was eager to do his duty for his country, Ure said.

Holly Martin Gross set up a special Facebook page - "R.I.P. Jake Suter" - for those wishing to honor him, and quoted philosopher Joseph Campbell: "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."

Bob Kellar, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Memorial Committee, shocked Memorial Day attendees with news of Suter's death, noting that the young man's parents were in Delaware and asking everyone to honor a moment of silence.

Suter's parents, Chris and Michelle Unthank, of Bates Place in Stevenson Ranch, went in the East Coast state to retrieve the body of their son. They are due back in California late Tuesday.

UPDATE: However, they are not bringing their son's remains home this trip. Just before boarding the plane Tuesday afternoon, Chris Unthank texted The Signal that a "Medical team from D.C. is conducting exam" of Jake's body, and that he expects the remains to be released to the family in three or four days.

Cecile Marin-Manalo and other friends and neighbors have already organized a candlelight prayer vigil scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Bates Place near Suter's home, and Bri Lobato has set up a Facebook event page. Suter's parents plan to attend.

UPDATE: Congressman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) also plans to attend, according to his public information officer. 

Marin-Manalo requests that participants park on Kavenagh Lane to keep Bates Place clear for the vigil.

Those wishing to pay their respects should bring a flag, said friend Darcy Spencer Ure, Nathan's wife. 

++++++++++++++++++

After spending part of his Memorial Day with his wife Michelle at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, watching their son's flag-draped casket being respectfully taken off a plane arriving from Germany, Chris Unthank spoke with Signal Online Editor Stephen K. Peeples at 9:30 Pacific time Monday night.

Marine Corps Pfc. Jake William Suter was their only child. They fly home to California Tuesday.

Unthank: He was a private first class. He was a Marine since he went to boot camp last summer, and he worked pretty hard to get that Private First Class (rank). He was very, very proud of being a Marine.

Signal: According to his Facebook page, he enlisted in June 2009. Did he go in right after graduating from West Ranch?

Unthank: He came to us in September 2008 and said he wanted to go through the delayed entry program. He was what is known as a pogue, a guy counting down until he's done with high school. Then in June 2009 he went right into the Marines and right into boot camp. He was actually 17 when he went in and turned 18 (on July 31) while he was in boot camp.

He went to the MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego for boot camp and then the school of infantry that's in Camp Pendleton. He was moved from there to the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe. That's where he was based when he was deployed (to Afghanistan).

Signal: How long was Jake over there? We're hearing nine days...

Unthank: It was actually like five. I can pull my calendar up and give you a timeline, it was so recent. He left on the 17th from Hawaii and flew to Germany, then to Kurdistan. He was in Kurdistan for a couple of days and then went over to Afghanistan. A week ago today, Monday the 24th, we got a call from him in the morning.

If you go off of the timeframe on his Facebook page, I believe he says he got to Afghanistan at a specific time and he was like, ‘Ah, this is not what I expected it to be.' So he was in Afghanistan for five to seven days when he was, ah, killed, yeah. It was about 10 a.m. Saturday (Afghanistan time).

Signal: How were you notified? What did they say when they called?

Unthank: Actually, they came up on the porch, just like in the movies. A staff sergeant and a gunnery sergeant came to the door early on Saturday morning. Between 6 and 6:30 (PT) we got a knock on the door. And they asked for my wife. We invited them in, and they let us know that Jake had been...killed in Afghanistan.

They don't have specific details for us yet. Their investigation is still pending so they get all their facts straight as to exactly the situation and the circumstances in which he was killed.

Signal: So you don't know if he was killed in action or in an accident...

Unthank: We still actually don't know what happened to him, and they haven't told us any of that yet.

Signal: How did your wife take it?

Unthank: Um, pretty bad. She dropped to the floor crying and I immediately started trying to comfort her. Everything that you would expect: ‘Why?' ‘Too soon.' ‘He just got there.' ‘We just talked to him.' It's been a very rough couple of days.

The entire community's amazing, though. Saturday we immediately had members of our church coming over and there was a steady stream of people and phone calls from people giving us their condolences.

Someone on their own has made this Facebook page, R.I.P. Jake Suter, and I keep checking it and more and more people are following it. It's at 392 (fans) right now (9:30 pm PT Monday) and every time I refresh it there are more people.

If you go to the lower left, there are photos of (Jake's flag-draped casket) being taken off the plane after it landed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. That's what we saw this afternoon about 2:30 Delaware time (ET).

Signal: Tonight's NBC Nightly News also had footage of his casket being taken off the plane, and referred to him by name.

Unthank: I saw a little blurb on Fox News, too.

And the Marine Corps has been amazing. Staff Sgt. James has been with us ever since we arrived at the airport yesterday. He accompanied us all the way across the country yesterday, made all sorts of arrangements, talked to people before we got there, people at the gates, and made this horrible experience as bearable as possible.

He's actually still with us and will be escorting us all the way back to Los Angeles tomorrow (Tuesday). He's been an incredible liaison for us and the Marine Corps. He's been amazing and I can't thank him enough.

Signal: What was Jake's unit?

Unthank: He was with Lima Company, WPNS, Unit 44090. That's the address he gave us for mailing packages. We mailed him a package on the Wednesday and then we found this out on Saturday. So he hadn't even received his first package from us yet. We'll probably get that returned to us because he's...gone.

Signal: You said he was killed around 10 a.m. Saturday Afghanistan time...

Unthank: I believe that's about 11 p.m. the night before, our time. They're ahead of us 10 or 11 hours. And (the Marines) responded within hours. We had a staff sergeant and gunnery sergeant on our front porch at 6 the next morning, breaking the news to us.

Signal: What was Jake's dream? What did he hope to accomplish there in Afghanistan and in life afterward? What of that did he share with you?

Unthank: I was fortunate enough to have a three-hour conversation with him the Friday before he left (that would be May 14). It was an amazing conversation that I had with my son. As an 18-year-old he had already grown up a lot, into a pretty strong man.

He'd done some research on the Afghan people. He was a very finicky eater as a child, yet he was very open to their food and actually loved it. He loved the language and the culture, and was very excited to go over and help. He knew he was going into a war zone but also felt like he was on a mission of peace -- not to just go in there as military but also to help the Afghan people do what they needed to do.

He was always very politically motivated and very into history. He was a born soldier. He wanted to go and serve his country.

Signal: What kind of student was he at West Ranch?

Unthank: He was an average student, but gifted in that he had a way with words. He could write essays and compositions and was an avid reader. He was a very good writer and I wouldn't have been surprised if he had turned into a (professional) writer.

He had told us that even with his grades -- he had like a 3.0 grade point average -- he had been accepted to Brown University. And the reason why was because he had submitted a 15-page essay and they were so impressed by it they accepted him and told him if he wanted to go to school there, he could.

If you go through some of the Facebook entries, there are a lot of people who make reference to the way he spoke and the way he was able to write.

He would help people with their homework because he just had a better way of phrasing things, a better way of putting sentences together and expressing ideas.

Signal: Sounds like someone we would have liked to have known.

Unthank: Anyone who did get a chance to know him, they were privileged to do so. That's why the community is pretty involved and pretty shook up, because of all the people whose lives he touched. He really did make an impression.

Signal: What other interests did Jake have?

Unthank: He was a history buff - he loved American history. He was very energetic. He and I used to play Airsoft, a type of paintball, which is kind of fitting because we did that through his high school years. You use replica assault weapons and dress in your battle fatigues and camouflage gear and get into teams and kind of play Army.

He was also on the West Ranch football team for three years, from his freshman year through his junior year. He was a middle linebacker. He was second- or third-string, but on the specialty team his freshman and sophomore years, so he was always on the punting or return-the-kickoff team.

Signal: What else would you like people to know about Jake?

Unthank: I feel that anyone who knew him knows he's an amazing kid and he's deeply, deeply loved, and he's even more deeply missed. A big part of our life is gone, and I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to just try to take it day by day. But we mourn our son, and we miss him dearly.

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