Riley Martens is too little to understand why her father isn’t here. It will be years before she makes sense of phrases like the “ultimate sacrifice” or the “war on terror.”
The 1-year-old is busy kissing Nathan Marten’s photograph and delighting in everything that surrounded her dad as he grew into a man on this 2.5-acre spread in Queen Creek, at the edge of San Tan Regional Park.
His animals, his baseball caps and the breeze blowing across the sprawling front porch. His younger brother, Matthew, and his parents, Maria and Rob. A place and a family that stand in loving testament to a young man who did, indeed, make the ultimate sacrifice.
Navy corpsman Nathan Martens is among 15 Arizonans, including four from the East Valley — two from the same Army National Guard unit — who lost their lives in Iraq during the past year. This Memorial Day, they take their places of honor alongside thousands of other veterans who have died in military service.
At least 2,465 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to The Associated Press and the U.S. Defense Department. Fifty-five were from Arizona.
Riley is among at least 37 Arizona children left behind. Many are too small to remember their fathers. Four will never meet them.
Riley's mother, Erin, was spending a few days in New York last week after memorial services at Camp Lejuene, N.C., where she and Nathan were stationed, and in Washington, D.C.
At Camp Lejuene on May 4, Nathan and seven others members of his battalion were eulogized. On May 21, on the National Mall, the families of fallen service men and women were honored, with each child receiving a special “medal of remembrance.”
Nathan was killed in a Humvee rollover Sept. 6, just 10 days after landing in Iraq. This month’s memorial services were a painful but necessary part of the family’s recovery, says his father, Rob Martens. They still struggle to believe it really happened.
“It doesn’t seem any more real than it did nine months ago,” he says. “It’s just not right.”
Nathan had been an all-star baseball catcher and football letterman for Queen Creek High, from which he graduated in 2003. He was a former 4-H Club president, raising steers, pigs, sheep and horses. He was smart, charming and driven, but never showed an interest in the military.
He went to Central Arizona College on an academic scholarship, but lost focus while he was a freshman. After running into a Navy recruiter at a mall, he enlisted, without a word to his parents.
“I got a call from a recruitment officer,” Maria recalls. “And I said, ‘He’s really not interested.’ And he said, ‘Ma’am, he needs to report.’ ”
Nathan had it all figured out. The training and education he’d receive to become a Navy hospitalman would launch his career as a pediatrician.
“He loved taking care of his guys, making sure these guys stayed healthy,” Rob says. “He loved medicine, and (the Navy) was a means to an end.”
Meanwhile, Nathan also charmed Erin, four years his senior, and the two married in July 2004.
Riley was born four months later, and the young family settled into an apartment at Camp Lejuene. When Nathan was deployed to Iraq in August, Maria Martens agreed to let her youngest son, Matthew, 17, skip school so they could go to North Carolina to see him off.
Those days are a gift to the family now. They took hundreds of photographs, including a series of Nathan, Erin and Riley snuggling on the grass a few minutes before Nathan boarded the bus. With their heads bowed and arms wrapped around Riley, Erin and Nathan are crying.
“She didn’t sign up to be a single mom,” Rob says of Erin. “She thought they were going to do this together.”
The family has found support in each other, their church and other military families, and through VA grief counseling.
Rob tries to attend the funerals for Arizonans killed in Iraq, and makes sure families know where to find help.
“What we’re going through, somebody else is just starting,” Rob says. “There are so many groups that want to do things for you. ... Let people help you, because they want to.”
To honor Nathan and all Arizona military members who died for their country, Alden Rosbrook of the San Tan Mountain Pride Association is leading a drive for a memorial at the regional park.
Rosbrook hopes to have it completed by Veterans' Day in November, but is about $14,000 short. More information on the memorial drive is available at www.fallenherosarizonamemorialfund.com Riley will have many ways to remember her father, including a special quilt her great-grandmother is making and Nathan’s childhood bedroom, filled with sports team photos and just as he left it.
But it is Riley, with her father’s eyes, who reminds her family. Looking at the roly-poly, pig-tailed toddler, it’s hard for Maria not to feel cheated. Nathan was a fine father, she says.
It’s when she talks about Riley’s future, without Nathan, that Maria tears up and can’t finish a sentence.
“I can just hold her,” she says. “She’s such a blessing. But I think of the years to come. . .”
The following is a list of Arizona troop deaths in the Iraq war since Memorial Day 2005:
Army Pfc. Christopher M. Eckhardt — Died May 3 of noncombat-related injuries in Taji. The Phoenix resident was 19.
Army Pfc. Patrick A. Tinnell — Died April 19 in a car bombing in Siniyah. The Lake Havasu City native was 25.
Army Pfc. Joseph J. Duenas — Died March 30 of injuries after falling from a helicopter in Kirkuk province. The Mesa resident was 23.
Marine Lance Cpl. John J. Thornton — Died Feb. 25 in a mortar attack in Ramadi. The Phoenix resident was 22.
Marine Cpl. Brandon S. Schuck — Died Feb. 6 in an explosion from a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The Safford resident was 21.
Marine Lance Cpl. John M. Holmason — Died Dec. 1 from an explosive in Fallujah. The Surprise resident was 20.
Army Sgt. James Witkowski — Died Oct. 26 in an explosion from a roadside bomb near Ashraf. The Surprise resident was 32.
Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher M. Poston — Died Oct. 17 in a vehicle accident. The Glendale resident was 20.
Army Spc. Thomas H. Byrd — Died Oct. 15 in an explosion. He was 21.
Marine Master Sgt. Kenneth E. Hunt Jr. — Died Oct. 12 from injuries received in an explosion in Taqaddum. The Tucson resident was 40.
Army Spc. Jeremiah W. Robinson — Died Oct. 6 of injuries in a roadside bomb explosion in Baghdad. The Mesa resident was 20.
Army Sgt. Howard P. Allen — Died Sept. 26 in an explosion from a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The Mesa resident was 31.
Navy Hospitalman Robert N. Martens — Died Sept. 6 from a vehicle rollover in Qaim. The Queen Creek resident was 20.
Army Pfc. Seferino J. Reyna — Died Aug. 7 in an explosion in Taji. The Phoenix resident was 20.
Air Force Capt. Jeremy Fresques — Died May 30 in an aircraft crash about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad. The Clarkdale resident was 26.
SOURCE: The Associated Press