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Calif. churches expand ministries where first casualties were based

SAN DIEGO (BP)–The first American casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom were members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

Two Marines from Camp Pendleton, Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 22, of Los Angeles, and 2nd Lt. Therrel S. Childers, 30, of Harrison, Miss., were killed March 21 in ground fighting as U.S. and British forces overtook the town of Safwan in southern Iraq and the Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr en route to Baghdad.

Three other Marines from Camp Pendleton were killed March 21 when their helicopter crashed in Kuwait near the Iraq border: Ryan Beaupre, 30, of St. Anne, Ill., Kendall Damon Waters-Bey, 29, of Baltimore and Brian Kennedy, 25, of Houston.

In reaction to the deaths of local troops, churches in the San Diego and Oceanside communities sought to extend additional prayer and help to military families.

Volunteers from Highland Park Baptist Church in San Diego, located three miles from a Camp Pendleton housing complex, hung notes on doors in the community, telling residents of a special morning service at the church March 23. The notes indicated that the church was praying for the troops and would like military families to join them, and directions to the church were included.

The church put up a banner that said, “Praying for our heroes,” and asked anyone with a family member serving in the military to bring a picture to place under the banner so the church could pray for them, associate pastor Michael Williams told Baptist Press. The church also provided a table where military families could indicate needs they have while their loved ones are away, and the church will help meet those needs.

“During the service, we had those connected with the armed forces stand up, and we applauded them,” Williams said. The service also included a special time of prayer for the soldiers and their families.

“A lot of ladies were concerned about their husbands,” Williams said. “They were visibly blessed by what we did. We felt like the Lord was glorified in the whole thing. Three decisions to follow Christ were made.”

At North Hills Baptist Church in Oceanside, which meets in an elementary school less than one mile from the back gate of Camp Pendleton, pastor John LeBlanc reported that many of their members are deployed, and the church is trying to keep up the support network for the families left behind. The church obtained addresses for each member overseas and has been corresponding with them and sending care packages filled with requested items.

“We are staying in weekly contact with the families that are behind, asking what we can do to help them as needs arise — cutting grass, fixing cars, babysitting,” LeBlanc said.

The church has had many special times of prayer, and LeBlanc said that when President Bush’s 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq ended, he and his wife invited the military families to their home for prayer.

As troops were being deployed, the church had called specific families and prayed over them before their loved ones left. In the church bulletin each week, a list of military names are meant to remind people to pray throughout the week. In the back of the church, a table with pictures of deployed church members helps people put a face with a name so that praying becomes more personal.

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