Irwin Marine killed in Afghanistan honored at memorial service for his brave actions


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When he died Sept. 14 while organizing fellow Marines to resist a Taliban attack on his air base in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Christopher K. "Otis" Raible, of Irwin, was one of the highest-ranking Marines to be killed during combat in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During a series of poignant and moving speeches given during a memorial service Saturday at Norwin High School attended by about 500 friends, family and members of the community, the heroic way Lt. Col. Raible died was described and cheered.

But his friends, family, local officials and Marine brothers who spoke during the 2 1/2 hour ceremony wanted to talk mainly about how he lived: his goofy, "wicked sense of humor;" how he outworked other, more talented players to start on the Norwin High School football team; the fun he had with his daughters at a Daddy-Daughter Dance in Arizona; how he once stood up for a friend during a heated pickup basketball game; how he'd listen to Steelers games while flying his AV8 Harrier jet; how he doled out meaningful philosophy to pilots under his command on the eve of battle.

They were the kinds of stories his parents, Kim and Al Raible, hoped everyone would bring to the ceremony, that was complete with a military color guard, the playing of taps and a photo montage of his life that had the audience alternately crying and laughing.

"This is what has held us together," Mrs. Raible said Saturday. "I guess I just didn't know how many people cared, how many people loved him and how many people understood his sacrifice."

He was buried Oct. 3 in Arlington National Cemetery. His wife and three young children (ages 11, 9 and 2) could not attend Saturday's memorial at the high school because they were attending the Miramar Air Show in Southern California that was dedicated in his honor.

The attendance at the high school memorial "is clearly a testament to how many lives he touched," his wife, Donnella, said in an email. "He loved North Huntingdon and Pittsburgh. He was always talking about what a great place Pittsburgh is. And of course, he was a huge fan of the Steelers and the Pens."

The brave actions that led to his death have not gone unnoticed by the Marines.

Lt. Col. Raible was already highly decorated as a combat pilot and squadron commander of the only Harrier squad in Afghanistan, Marine Attack Squadron 211 Avengers. For his actions on Sept. 14, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon and an Air Medal with Strike 15 Award.

The conflict began when 15 members of the Taliban, dressed as U.S. military, cut a fence that ringed the base. They stormed a line of planes and helicopters there, destroying six Harrier jets and damaging two more, causing more than $200 million in damages that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said was the single largest loss of U.S. military aircraft since the Vietnam War.

Lt. Col. Raible and another Marine, Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell, were killed by an exploding grenade, but not before Lt. Col. Raible's fellow Marines reported that his quick organization played a significant role in containing the enemy before the Taliban were finally defeated.

"So, when the bad guys got to the gate, and they were attacking those airplanes, Chris Raible made a decision," Marine Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, deputy commander, U.S. Cyber Command, told the audience Saturday. "It was dark. It was chaotic. One man, one man with courage, Chris Raible, took charge. He organized those Marines and led a counterattack. He was killed in the process of doing that.

"His Marines cried at his loss. I cried at his loss. His family cried at his loss," Lt. Gen. Davis said. "They lost a great leader."

A fellow pilot, Col. T.J. Dunne, told the audience that many people will say of Lt. Col. Raible's death: "It's a shame."

"But I would say shame is on the complete opposite spectrum from what Otis did," Col. Dunne said through his tears.

Instead, because he died defending his fellow citizens, Lt. Col. Raible's death "was an honor."

A cousin, Duane Raible, used a visual to drive this point home, putting a picture of Lt. Col. Raible on a large video screen behind him on the auditorium stage, with a list of the various names and titles he was known by before asking the audience: "Please stand and applaud loudly his new title: 'Our Family's American Hero.' "

The crowd enthusiastically agreed, leaping to their feet and applauding as he requested, loudly.

Lt. Col. Raible is one of the highest ranking Marines to die during combat since the wars began in Iraq nine years ago and in Afghanistan 11 years ago, according to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Only three other Marine officers of the same rank have been killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan, and none of a higher rank, though one colonel died in a non-hostile incident in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Raible was also an instructor pilot at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One -- known as MAWTS-1 -- which is the Marine Corp's version of the Navy's TOPGUN training program for the best of the best pilots.

Not that any of his non-military friends knew that he was that important in the military.

"I didn't realize until he died how high up he was in the military," his lifelong friend, Art Pancost said prior to the ceremony, "because he never mentioned it."

What they all knew, though, was something Mr. Murphy said during his remarks: "He was a natural leader," a theme many of the speakers came back to.

Jim Garrett, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University, from which Lt. Col. Raible graduated with honors in 1995, said during the summer of 1993, Lt. Col. Raible was the leader of a group of six students who renovated a laboratory as part of his work-study program.

It could have been just a burdensome, tiring project, but "under Chris' leadership, the group bonded," and remained in touch 19 years later.

Mr. Garrett told the audience that CMU was establishing an alumni award for distinguished public service in Lt. Col. Raible's name, and naming him its first recipient.

And for all of those who spoke, hearing how he died running toward the terrorists was not a surprising story, even for those who never served in the military with him.

"You bet that was the guy I knew," Mr. Pancost told the crowd.

neigh_westmoreland

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579. First Published October 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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