`A loss for the whole town'

Death of Marine, 26, brings war home for Shore community

1st casualty from Maryland

January 21, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

MARDELA SPRINGS -- The warfare in Afghanistan came home yesterday to this tiny Eastern Shore community, where three Marine Corps representatives brought the grim news to the family of Maryland's first casualty -- 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Walter F. Cohee III.

Friends and neighbors gathered at the Cohee home on Main Street, bringing food, offering condolences and support, and remembering the young man known as "Trae," who grew up there and played recreational and high school soccer.

As a teen-ager, he followed in the footsteps of his brother, Chris, 18 months older, and parents Jeanne and Walter F. Cohee Jr. as a volunteer in the Fire Department.

Stanford Robinson, a town commissioner who served with Jeanne Cohee in her only four-year Town Council term, said residents of this Wicomico County community near the Nanticoke River could scarcely believe they had been touched by the distant war.

"It's a loss for the whole town," said Robinson. "We've all watched their two boys grow up. In a town of 360 or so people, this is a terrible loss for everybody. His dad has been in the fire company for years and years, and his mother has been with the Ladies Auxiliary for just about as long."

Straddling U.S. 50 about 12 miles from Salisbury, Mardela Springs is a community of large frame houses, three churches and a bank. Two convenience stores out on the highway are open 24 hours, but the old general store has been boarded up for years. The combined high school and middle school Cohee attended are on one side of the busy thoroughfare, the Little League ball field, a one-room cinder block town hall and the fire department on the other.

Trae Cohee enlisted in the Marines seven years ago, soon after graduating from Mardela Springs High School, said his aunt, Coralee Powell.

"He had plans for college but didn't have the financial means to go to the schools that interested him," his aunt said. "He had a friend who'd joined the Marines and thought that would be a way to get an education and see the world. He saw a lot, too, Japan and other places."

Cohee's last visit in his hometown came in September, about a month before his unit was shipped out to Afghanistan. Family members had hoped he would be able to come home for Christmas.

In an interview with WBOC-TV of Salisbury, his mother said her greatest fears were realized when the Marine Corps representatives pulled up to her house about 10 a.m. yesterday. "My kitchen window faces the driveway, and when I looked out and there were three Marines, and I knew they were not coming to give me good news," she told WBOC.

Cohee joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduating from high school, his mother said, and became an electrician who worked on military helicopters. Mrs. Cohee said her son had been scheduled to come home earlier this month with other members of his unit but was needed to stay behind to work on helicopters. He was killed in a helicopter crash.

She said Trae was not one to complain about serving his country. "He said, `Mom, I didn't join the Marines to sit still. I joined the Marines to help,'" she recalled.

"He was only a child, you know," Mrs. Cohee said. "The Marines made him a man."

Last night, family members asked for privacy. "We're being bombarded by calls from all over; even the Today show called," said his aunt. "For a close-knit and loving family, this is devastating."

Cohee was single, his aunt said, but had a girlfriend in California and had talked of marriage before the war began. His body, like those of other military casualties, will be flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Plans for services were incomplete last night.

"Right now, the family needs a little peace, a little space to deal with this," his aunt said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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