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Marines get together on Southold farm to honor fallen comrades

Marine Sgt. Major Vernon Derby reports to his

Marine Sgt. Major Vernon Derby reports to his commanding officer the names of their comrades who died in combat in Afghanistan while the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division stand at attention behind him on Saturday, May 23, 2015. The crosses memorialize those who died. Credit: David L. Pokress / David L. Pokress

Memorial Day weekend was deeply personal for the dozens of Marines who gathered on a Southold farm Saturday, reunited for the first time in five years after losing five comrades in Afghanistan and another to suicide.

Six wooden crosses were driven into the ground of Cliff Cornell's 10-acre hops farm, where roughly 85 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division had gathered from across the country for three days of camping, barbecuing and catching up.

In an afternoon ceremony, a roll was called and the names of the six fallen Marines hung in the air unanswered, as their comrades embraced one another and choked back tears.

Sgt. Jose Saenz III, 30; Sgt. Ronald Rodriguez, 26; Cpl. Jorge Villarreal Jr., 22; Lance Cpl. Francisco Jackson, 24; and Sgt. Jason Smith, 28, were killed in 2010 during the unit's seven-month deployment in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Sgt. Rick Villani took his own life a year after returning home, in November 2011.

Saenz's mother, father, wife and son and Villarreal's mother and sister watched Saturday as men knelt and placed their hands on the crosses.

"It's good to see everyone, but it also brings back of a lot of strong emotions," said Sgt. Mike Eggli, 30, who traveled from Santa Barbara, California. "Some of them are really great and some of them are really painful. You know that you suffered together."

The Battery I unit of artillery specialists was handed a dangerous mission in Afghanistan: guarding the Kajaki Dam, a power source for hundreds of thousands of Afghanis. In a unit of 124 Marines, 32 Purple Heart medals were awarded to those wounded or killed.

Capt. James Ferguson, a Rockville Centre native who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, helped organize the reunion for his unit with Cornell -- who donated his farm and raised $15,000 for the event -- and the nonprofit Semper Fi Fund. On Saturday morning, the Marines ran in formation during a race to honor veterans in East Northport. They spent the night on cots in a party tent on the farm.

Ferguson said it's rare in modern times for a military unit to spend time together after a deployment. "One day, you're in Afghanistan getting shot at and the next you're on a plane going back to America," he said. The reunion, he said, "gives us the opportunity to heal together and hopefully find the closure we need to move on."

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