Family Mourns Casualty Of War

Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven is mourned by, from left, brother Joseph Belle, father Leo Kirven, stepbrother Joe Purcell and mother Beth Belle.
Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven is mourned by, from left, brother Joseph Belle, father Leo Kirven, stepbrother Joe Purcell and mother Beth Belle. "The gunnery sergeant said that he was such a hero in this battle," Beth Belle said. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Three weeks ago, Nicholas Kirven wrote his stepfather a long e-mail from somewhere in Afghanistan, one in which the trajectory of the 21-year-old's life was at last becoming discernable.

"I'm still thinking of the college thing next fall but not sure where," he wrote. "Given my grades in high school I might have to start small. . . . I've now gained the maturity and discipline needed to excell in school. I doubt I would have done well at 18."

"How's Jobes?" he wrote, referring to younger brother Joseph. "I think about him all the time and hope that he's getting through that tough growing up time. I just pray he doesn't make the mistakes I did, he's a good kid."

Michael Belle, Kirven's stepfather, was in his home office when the Marine gunnery sergeant and a Navy chaplain knocked on his door in Fair Oaks about 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Kirven's mother, Beth Belle, was in the kitchen, and screamed when she saw them.

"Beth could not answer the door," Michael Belle said.

Lance Cpl. Nicholas Cain Kirven, a directionless but big-hearted teenager who found purpose in the Marine Corps, was killed Sunday in an area of eastern Afghanistan his parents can hardly pronounce, Alishang.

The gunnery sergeant told the Belles that Kirven's unit had engaged in a lengthy firefight with insurgents about 60 miles east of Kabul. He said the Marines had chased the insurgents into a cave and called in air strikes. When Kirven, the squad leader, and another Marine entered the cave to assess the situation, he said, they were ambushed and killed.

"The gunnery sergeant said that he was such a hero in this battle, that he saved lives," Beth Belle said.

Kirven was to come home within 30 days. "He wanted to come home," Michael Belle said. "He'd had enough, you know. He kept saying, 'I gotta get by just 30 days, and I'll be seeing you soon.' "

Kirven specialized in soccer, basketball and girls in high school, all four of them that he attended. He played piano, composed music and made his family laugh, often with impersonations of Colin Farrell. Kirven considered himself unfocused, though, and had his share of teenage troubles.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Marine recruiter visited his high school in Richmond, where Kirven was living with his father, Leo Kirven. A senior then, he found the sense of purpose he had been craving, and signed up.

"He needed to join the Marines because it's the toughest branch of service," his stepfather said. "He wanted to be the few, the proud -- the commercial."

Kirven told his family he actually enjoyed boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and he went on to complete grueling training in rock climbing and swimming, eventually joining Special Operations.

He left for Afghanistan on Oct. 31. He called when he could and wrote dispatches through the frozen winter, usually attaching snapshots of things he noticed for one reason or other: a staring, dark-haired little girl; a dead camel; an elderly man's misshapen foot ("I don't know what is wrong with it," he wrote). Mary-Pride Kirven said her brother always appreciated small details.

He was proud of what the Marines were accomplishing in Afghanistan, he told his parents, and said he enjoyed the work of rebuilding the country more than hunting down al Qaeda.

"Everything is ok here," he wrote to his stepfather in April. "I'll tell you all the good stories when I get back. Mom would freak so I spare the details that would cause her worry. . . . Give Joseph a big birthday hug for me and tell Pridie I'm so proud of her when she graduates.

"I love you all so much," he wrote. "Love, Nicholas"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company