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January 16, 2010

Mourners gather to remember Uzenski

By Jake Palmateer

Staff Writer

FRANKLIN _ Candles lit in memory of a fallen Marine defied the winter wind Friday night as 150 mourners gathered on an outdoor basketball court at Franklin Central School.

Some softly sobbed as they paid their respects to Cpl. Nick Uzenski's family. Some sang "Amazing Grace" and "God Bless America." Others had never met the Marine, but pledged to help his family in any way they could.

Uzenski, 21, was killed Monday in southern Afghanistan when his reconnaissance unit came under fire from insurgents. Two other marines, Staff Sgt. Matthew N. Ingham, 25, of Altoona, Pa., and Cpl. Jamie R. Lowe, 21, of Johnsonville, Ill., also died.

Uzenski, who graduated from Franklin in 2006, will be buried in Montana, where his father lives, during a full military honor ceremony next week.

But a memorial service featuring an honor guard from the Marine Corps will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Franklin Central School Cafetorium. Uzenski's family is planning to attend.

Alone and in small groups, the mourners began gathering on the court 45 minutes before the vigil began at 7 p.m.

Uzenski's mother, Lisa Uzenski, was not feeling up to attending, said her mother, Audrey Archibald.

"It's been rough, really rough," Archibald said.

Lisa, Archibald and other family members traveled a few day earlier to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where Uzenski's body was flown Thursday.

"It's very heart-wrenching when you see that flag-draped coffin. That's when the reality sets in," Archibald said.

Archibald said the family was treated with respect and courtesy by military officials. All three Marines who died in the attack were flown to Dover on the same day.

Ingham saved the lives of about 12 Marines during the attack when he managed to crawl to a radio and call for air support while wounded, according to media reports.

American and coalition forces in Afghanistan were involved in heavy fighting this week in Helmand Province, a stronghold of the Taliban.

"Lisa met the mother of one of the boys," Archibald said. "(Ingham) was the one that handpicked Nick to be in the recon unit."

The three men served with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, Japan. Recon Marines must be screened for the special duty and receive advanced training such as airborne school. They are typically tasked with observing and reporting on enemy activity.

Lisa Uzenski is considering going to Altoona to attend Ingham's funeral this weekend, Archibald said.

"That's just something that's important to her," Archibald said.

Archibald looked around at the gathering crowd of mourners.

"I think the support of the community has just been wonderful. It means a lot to the family," Archibald said. "I didn't realize how many lives he did touch."

Kendall Coons, a classmate of Uzenski said she was not surprised by the large turnout.

"I would expect no less for him," she said.

Coons said about two-thirds of Franklin's class of 2006 were in attendance. Many are on break from college.

Word of Uzenski's death had spread quickly on the social networking website Facebook on Tuesday.

That's how Coons said she learned of it.

"Immediately, I broke down," Coons said.

Coons said she called some fellow classmates to let them hear the news over the phone, rather than through a computer.

"He was perfect. He had a great sense of humor and made your smile," she said.

The loss of one of their own in combat on the other side of the world was something that was simply not expected, said classmate Elizabeth Jump said.

"It's shocking. It's still hard to believe," Jump said. "He was just a great guy. He'll be missed for sure."

A few at the candlelight vigil, including Ken Taylor, said they had never met Uzenski, but felt compelled to act.

"We've got to do something," said Taylor, vice commander of Ouleout Valley American Legion Post 1689.

Taylor said the post is collecting money to help the family pay for travel expenses. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box 24, Franklin, NY 13755, he said.

Franklin Principal Jason Thomson said planning is continuing for next Tuesday's ceremony. But he said the Marines are sending a contingent to help and a picture slide show is being put together.

"The American Legion is going to be involved as well," Thomson said.

Uzenski's family has requested that the school set up a memorial scholarship fund and that school will do that, Thomson said.

Contributions to the scholarship fund may be sent to Franklin Central School, 26 Institute St., PO Box 888, Franklin, NY, 13755.

Taylor said any money left over from the Legion's effort would likely be donated to the scholarship fund.

In addition to his mother, Lisa Uzenski, and father, Bill Uzenski, who are divorced, the fallen Marine's immediate family includes his step-mother, Rebakah, sisters Kaitlin and Cassidy, step-sister Faith and three younger brothers Zebadiah, Zechariah and Jathniel, all of Bozeman, Mont.