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Mich. Marine 'Wanted to Be There'

Specialist in Disposing of Ordnance Volunteered for Iraq Duty

By Michele Clock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page B02

Michele Lehto left her 11-year-old son's side yesterday and, with her hand covering her mouth, walked alone toward her husband's coffin.

Dozens of mourners, wrapped in winter coats and uniforms, quietly looked on as Lehto, 31, stood for a moment next to the metal coffin. She leaned over and kissed it, paying her final respects.

Gunnery Sgt. Barry Baker presents an American flag to Michele Lehto, wife of Marine Staff Sgt. Jason A. Lehto, who was killed Dec. 28 in Iraq. With her are her son Nathan, 11, Jason Lehto's father, Bob Lehto, and his brother, Anthony. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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Lehto's husband, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jason A. Lehto, 31, of Warren, Mich., was the 111th casualty of the Iraq war to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery's manicured hills. Yesterday, under a gray sky and winter chill, his coffin was placed in the middle of a row of white marble headstones.

Jason Lehto's stepson, Nathan, 11, sat next to his mother during the funeral. The couple's two younger children, Joseph, 3, and Joshua, 2, stayed behind with family members in Michigan, said Lehto's stepfather, Chuck Walsh, 56, of Clinton Township, Mich.

Lehto, a reservist, died Dec. 28 in Anbar province, Iraq, in what the U.S. Department of Defense described as a nonhostile incident. Lehto was killed in an accident while "doing his job" at Al Asad Air Base, Walsh said.

Lehto was an ordnance disposal technician assigned to Marine Wing Support Group 47, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing of the Marine Forces Reserve at Mount Clemens, Mich. He was trained to defuse everything from pipe bombs to nuclear warheads, Walsh said. But "something went off unexpectedly as they were defusing an explosive device," he said.

While the work thrilled Lehto, it had caused a great deal of worry for his family, Walsh said. During the summer, family members had even tried to persuade Lehto not to volunteer for deployment.

"[It wasn't] because we didn't want him to serve in Iraq," Walsh said. "We just knew how dangerous what he did was. The nature of the beast was the greater the amount of [weapons] you're around, the greater the chance of something happening."

But Lehto, who enlisted in the Marines in 1992 after graduating from Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, remained steadfast.

"He wanted to serve," Walsh said. "He wanted to be there, he wanted to try and make a difference in a positive way there."

Lehto's unit had been activated from January 2003 to January 2004 and was ready to go to Iraq, but instead was held at Camp Lejeune, N.C., most of that time.

Lehto volunteered to serve in June, and was deployed with another unit in August.

Walsh said Lehto lost his mother, Priscilla, to complications stemming from congestive heart failure in April, and he and other family members believed that she was "over his shoulder" protecting him.

"We were hoping that would be the extra bit of advantage to bring him home," he said.

Lehto had hoped to return home in March and was making plans. Just a few hours before he died, he e-mailed his wife, saying that he'd found a home for sale online in the Detroit suburbs closer to his job as a utility lineman.

"If it was still available, they were going to look at it," Walsh said.

Walsh described his stepson as a "vivacious young gentleman" who "just floated through life just enjoying everything there was about it and everything about everybody."

He was very close to his brother, Anthony, and sisters Angela and Liane, and had many friends and cousins with whom he hung out all the time, Walsh said.

He's a loving brother, son, husband and father, Walsh said, referring to Lehto in the present tense.

"I'm not going to speak of him in the past," Walsh said, "because I'm never going to think of him as gone."

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