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Marine’s death introduces pair to Valley church, Patriot Guard

Garrett Gamble served with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan and died during combat in the Helmand Province in 2010.
Garrett Gamble served with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan and died during combat in the Helmand Province in 2010.

A pocket-size New Testament.

A lighter, embellished with the POW/MIA seal.

A United States Air Force First Sergeant pin.

A 2003 graduation tassel.

These are just a few of the items left at the veterans memorial in Spokane Valley, in front of Valley Fourth Memorial church.

Since its dedication in May, the lighted memorial has drawn visitors at all times of day. Many leave mementos behind, scattered near a plaque that reads: Garrett W. Gamble, LCpl, USMC, Sept. 30, 1989-March 11, 2010.

“Every time we come, there’s something new that’s been left,” said Gamble’s grandmother, Carol Cooper.

Gamble was a 20-year-old Marine from Houston, when he was killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan.

On a chilly November day at the memorial, Carol spoke of her grandson’s death. “Garrett was crossing a small bridge. Two guys went over – he was the third,” she said. “The medic saw the blast go way up.”

It’s a story that’s still hard for Cooper and her husband, Larry Cooper, to tell. Garrett spent many summers at the Coopers’ Spokane Valley home. “He left in October, was killed in March and was supposed to come home in May,” said Larry, wiping a hand across his eyes.

Photos of Gamble, reveal a tall, handsome young man, with a grin that radiates warmth and humor. The 6-foot-3 Marine’s good looks earned him the nickname Abercrombie, but he proudly talked about his “Grammy” and had Carol’s picture on his computer screen saver.

“His commanding officer said he never saw Garrett without a smile,” said Carol. “When the men would complain, Garrett would always say, ‘It could be worse.’ ”

When the Coopers received word of Gamble’s death, they immediately flew to Houston to be with their daughter. From there they traveled to Dover Air Force Base to meet the plane that brought Gamble’s body home. As they waited on the tarmac, the cargo door opened and the Coopers saw a lone flag-covered casket. “That was the worst,” Carol said. “We knew it was real.”

But what happened when Gamble’s body arrived in Houston changed his grandparents’ lives. Two hundred members of the Patriot Guard showed up, to greet the plane. The stirring sight touched the grieving couple. Larry said, “I joined the Patriot Guard when I came back.”

The Coopers believe what happened next is nothing short of miraculous. On July 3, 2010, they drove out to Fairchild Air Force Base with the Patriot Guard, to greet the body of a fallen soldier. A woman pulled in behind them and noticed the sticker on their car, “In Honor of Lance Cpl. Garrett Gamble.”

The woman, Barbara Parks, approached them and said, “You aren’t going to believe this, but Sunday we’re having a special service, and we’re honoring Garrett.”

Parks, a member of Valley Fourth Memorial, is part of the church’s HOME (Helping Our Military Eternally) ministry. Part of that ministry involves sending care packages to soldiers. Cooper’s niece had seen the organization’s booth at Valleyfest, and signed Gamble up to receive a package. But he was killed before the package arrived and it was returned to the church with a brief explanation. The church had no way of contacting Gamble’s family.

Though no one at Valley Fourth Memorial had met Gamble, they decided to honor the young Marine at their Fourth of July service.

The Coopers live five minutes away from the church, but they’d never visited it. They attended the service and were touched by the way their grandson was honored. They’ve since become active in the church and in the HOME ministry.

When plans for the memorial were finalized, Parks said, “We agreed Garrett’s name should go on it.”

Larry shook his head. “They did this for someone they didn’t know – a stranger!”

At the dedication of the memorial, the Coopers were asked to unveil it, but they never got the chance. As Taps was being played, a warm gust of wind lifted the tarp from the memorial and revealed it to the assembled crowd. Carol said, “There wasn’t a dry eye.”

While the names engraved on the memorial will only be those killed in action since 9/11 with local connections, the church is also compiling Books of Honor for members of each branch of the military, alive or dead. The books are displayed in the church lobby, and members of the public are welcome to fill out a form, so their loved ones can be recognized.

Meanwhile, visitors have flocked to the memorial, to pay their respects, to remember the fallen, and to leave small gifts behind.

Carol bent to straighten a ball cap left on the bench. The hat reads, “Vietnam Remembered.” She said, “None of us realized how much it would mean to have a place to come and reflect.”

Parks agreed. “We just feel God is using this to heal.”