In a display of small-town pride and big-hearted grief, Temecula and the Corps gathered Friday to honor one of their sons, a killed in what may be a pivot point in the still-simmering war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin died on March 19 in Irbil, in northern Iraq, when his unit was hit by rocket fire from the enemy. The 27-year-old artilleryman grew up in southwest Riverside County, graduating from Chaparral High School in Temecula.
“This was a natural thing for us to do. Where it hit home was that Sgt. Cardin was one of our boys,” said the city’s mayor, Mike Naggar.
Behind him, at least 200 people — some of them strangers to the Cardin family — lined up to pay respects to the fallen . His casket sat draped with the American flag in front of City Hall for four hours Friday morning.
Cardin — a blonde, buzz-cut who mugged playfully for the camera in several photographs — was one of the U.S. forces shoring up Iraqi troops who have proved incapable of routing the Islamist forces despite American air power and weapons.
Analysts said U.S. leaders are quietly sending in more American troops as the coalition braces for the fight to retake Mosul, the Islamic State’s headquarters in Iraq.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get back Mosul before President [Barack] Obama leaves office. And the Iraqis are also wanting to do that. The prime minister is looking for something significant to show he is making progress,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
An estimated 3,500 U.S. troops are in Iraq, mostly Army forces who are officially there to provide training and logistics and intelligence support.
Since January, the Pentagon has talked about sending in several hundred more to further “enable” the Iraqi army.
Cardin is the second American service member to be killed in action during Operation Inherent Resolve, the official name for the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq. The Pentagon recently announced a new campaign medal for those who participate in what’s now nearly a two-year-old fight.
Cardin, a 10-year veteran, was serving with the 26th Expeditionary Unit on ships off the Middle East for a standard seven-month deployment from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
His death has shined a light on the Corps’ involvement around Mosul, experts said.
“It was comparatively easy to get  in without attracting much attention. Had this unfortunate man not been killed, nobody would know anything about it,” Korb said.
Defense analyst Christopher Harmer at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War said he expects the Pentagon to continue using shipboard in Iraq in the near future.
He explained that for a White House that promised to remove American troops from the prolonged, bloody combat in Iraq, the option will generate less public blowback than sending an additional Army unit.
“The U.S. government is trying to minimize the political relations problem of explaining why we are putting more people in Iraq,” Harmer said. “It’s clear that the U.S. military, especially the , are going to get drawn more and more into a combat mission.”
San Diego County-based with the 13th Expeditionary Unit are the next up for a potential tour in the Arabian Sea. Their three-ship Boxer Amphibious Ready Group left San Diego in mid-February for a seven-month deployment.
The fight for Mosul could be a crucial moment in the struggle for control of Iraq.
Mosul, the second-biggest Iraqi city, fell to Islamic State fighters in June 2014 following similar routs of the Iraqi army in Fallujah and Ramadi.
After several stinging Islamic State victories across Iraq and reports of widespread human-rights abuses against Iraqi Christians and others, the United States and its coalition partners began a bombing campaign in August 2014. As of March, these airstrikes have killed an estimated 26,000 Islamic State fighters.
In a strategic and symbolic victory, the Iraqi army appeared to regain a fragile hold on Ramadi in December. Now all eyes have turned to Mosul in the north.
“They don’t want the momentum toward Mosul to slow down or stop, so that’s why they put the extra forces in there,” Korb said, noting that the Iraqi army has withered in the past whenever tested.
If the Islamic State loses Mosul, it could not only be a strategic loss, but also a symbolic blow — with the potential to dampen the enthusiasm of prospective recruits looking to join what before looked like an unstoppable juggernaut.
It will likely be a particularly bloody battle, Harmer said. And Cardin’s death may be a signpost of things to come.
“The arc of the conflict right now bends toward greater U.S. involvement on the front lines and greater U.S. casualties,” Harmer said. “Unless something changes that arc, that’s where we are headed.”
Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, speaking in late March at an awards dinner outside Washington, D.C., seemed to praise Cardin for his actions in the clutch.
“They were in indirect fire, and he made sure everybody got in the bunker. And he just didn’t make it in time,” Neller said, according to Military.com.
Back at Temecula City Hall, buddies of the fallen described him as the kind of person who would give you his last $2, or his last cigarette.
“He was the guy I went to when I got in trouble. He seemed to always make things better,” said Taj Saroya, who served with Cardin at Camp Pendleton.
These veterans were touched that so many civilians came out for the public viewing. “When I left this morning, I thought it would just be us,” Saroya said, pointing to a few dozen milling around in uniform and civilian clothes.
Visitors like Oggie Watson, an Air Force veteran who didn’t know Cardin or his family, stood in line to spend a moment with the casket.
“He died for me and my family,” said Watson, a longtime Temecula resident.
Cardin’s parents didn’t make any public remarks. Louis, called Louie by friends, was single.
After a short ceremony, the aunt said the large family — Cardin was one of eight children — was moved by the outpouring from the city.
“If anything could lessen the loss and bring joy, it’s seeing just the tremendous support that the community has given. And the has been unbelievable,” said Eileen Hilburn, his aunt.
A public memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Riverside National Cemetery. Cardin will be buried in a private ceremony afterward.
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