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Decision on Camp Pendleton crosses due in 2011 from Marine Corps brass

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POSTED December 27, 2011 7:45 p.m.

CAMP PENDLETON (AP) Ñ A Marine Corps ruling on the future of a pair of crosses at the top of a steep Camp Pendleton hill isn't expected until next year.

An atheist group wants the crosses to come down. Many Marines and their families want the crosses to stay in honor of comrades killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Base officials have sent a recommendation to Washington, but won't say what it is.

Jason Torpy of the Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told the North County Times (http://bit.ly/tRCTg7) he has been bombarded with hate mail, threats and phone calls from people angry at his group for demanding removal of the crosses.

He said there can still be a memorial on the site, but it should be the Marine Corps globe or a nonreligious symbol.

"This can be fixed today unless the Marine Corps is going to insist on having government promotion of Christianity," said Torpy, a 10-year veteran of the Army and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The first 13-foot cross was placed high above the base's Camp Horno in August 2003 by a group of Marines, including several who were later killed in fighting in Iraq. The cross was destroyed by fire in 2007. A new cross was erected in 2008, about 60 feet from the original.

The Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the memorial when another cross was erected at the site on Veteran's Day 2011. That's when opponents learned about the crosses, which are not visible from nearby Interstate 5.

There is more to the memorial than the crosses.

Both are surrounded by thousands of rocks carried up by Marines. Many have handwritten messages of love and remembrance.

There are dozens of bottles of liquor, most unopened, each representing a dead Marine's favorite drink, the North County Times said. A reporter for the paper was among a group of journalists who recently visited the site.

There's a football, a still-working watch, pictures of fallen Marines and numerous ID tags from those who didn't make it back alive. Rosaries, boots, cigarette packs and lighters also have been left.

Getting to the site is part of the tribute. Marines take the steepest path because the intensity of the 3,000-foot climb is viewed as nothing when compared to "the ultimate sacrifice" made by the troops who have died, a base spokeswoman told the North County Times.

The silence at the hilltop is interrupted only by wind or echoes of live-fire exercises taking place on other parts of the 125,000-acre base.

Jennifer Tully of Valley Center lost her Marine husband to suicide and was with the group that put up the Veteran's Day cross.

"It's a memorial site to everyone and no one is forced to go up there," said Tully, who also carried a small U.S. flag to the hilltop that day. "It's a place where troops and family members can go and honor the memories and grieve for the losses they have suffered.

"I know we put our heart, soul and tears into getting that cross up there."

In a Dec. 13 letter, former Marine and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, urged Col. Nicholas Marano, the commanding officer of Camp Pendleton, to keep the crosses, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

"Honoring the nation's military with symbols of faith is a tradition that is on display in national cemeteries from Fort Rosecrans to Arlington, as well as other places that pay tribute to the Armed Forces," Hunter wrote.

"Legal challenges are not only a disservice to our military, but they undermine generations of personal sacrifice on behalf of a nation committed to protecting individual freedom."

In addition to removal of the crosses, Torpy wants an investigation into why some commanders have taken troops to the site and conducted services.

Pentagon regulations forbid the military from promoting any religion.

The man who dedicated the first cross was Maj. Gen. John Toolan. He is now in Afghanistan overseeing Marine Corps forces as on-ground commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Toolan was a colonel in 2003 and his name is inscribed on the dedication plaque dated February 2004, the North County Times said.

Toolan has not commented on the controversy and did not respond to the paper's request for reaction.

The final decision may rest with Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.

If the crosses stay, Torby's group and others that fight for separation of church and state say they will sue. Those who want to keep the crosses say they have volunteers who will provide free legal services to fight any lawsuit.

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