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Maryland man was proud to be 'making a difference'

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Michael L. Starr Jr. e-mailed his loved ones after storming the Iraqi town of Fallujah last fall, writing of having lost buddies in combat, but proud of the role he was playing as a rifleman. Last weekend, he called them to say that he hoped to transfer out of Iraq soon and talked of using his military experience for a future in civilian law enforcement.

On Wednesday - the day described as the deadliest of the Iraq war for the U.S. military - Starr, 21, of Edgemere was among 31 servicemen killed when a Marine helicopter crashed near Ar Rutbah. The chopper was ferrying Marines to the Syrian border to provide security for tomorrow's elections.

When news of the crash flashed across the television screen, the corporal's father, Michael Starr Sr., was jolted.

"I was scared, like any parent would be, when I first saw the news," he said. "But I thought, no, it couldn't be him."

Nine hours later, a Marine Corps notification team, wearing dress blue uniforms, knocked on the front door of his home with the news that all parents dread. They were now "next of kin."

Fighting back tears yesterday, the father said, "He loved what he was doing, making a difference."

The father, the Marine's mother, Robin Starr of Marriottsville, and the stepmother, Linda Starr, gathered yesterday in the Edgemere living room and told stories about the young man whose Marine portrait peered down from the wall. Other family members and neighbors stopped by with food and condolences. Nearly all of them appeared numb with a sagging sense of loss.

Starr sounded "great, very positive" when he called his father and stepmother on Saturday, his stepmother said yesterday.

"He said that he was going to get out of there soon, that he was going to rotate back to Okinawa, then Hawaii and then home, probably sometime in May," Linda Starr said. He had planned to make the Marines his career, she said, but his four-year enlistment was almost over and he was excited about coming home and joining the Baltimore City Police Department.

Arrangements for services for Starr were incomplete, the family said yesterday.

The cause of the crash that killed 29 other Marines and a Navy corpsman remains under investigation. Initial reports by military officials said it could have been caused by a sandstorm.

Starr's mother said being a Marine changed the young man's life for the better.

"The Marines were so important to him, really motivated him, and he was an honor student in his senior year because he was so pumped up about being a Marine," she said. "He missed his graduation because he went off to boot camp. ... We mailed him his diploma."

Michael Starr grew up in the Perry Hall area with his parents and a sister, Jennifer, now 22. He attended Perry Hall High School, where faculty and staff remembered yesterday a young man eager to be a Marine.

"He was nice, wholesome - a real good kid," said Nancy Eckels, a Perry Hall High School guidance counselor, who remembers that Starr was quick to volunteer to show new students around the school and help them adjust.

Pat Sokoloski, work-study coordinator at Perry Hall High School, called the 2001 graduate "the kind of the person this country needs."

Sokoloski said he remembers how hard Starr worked to prepare physically for the rigors of Marine boot camp. After his afternoon shifts at a pretzel shop on The Avenue in White Marsh, Starr would work out at a White Marsh gym, Sokoloski said. "He wanted to be in the best possible shape. His goal was to be first in his boot camp class."

And he was, Sokoloski said.

Starr returned to Perry Hall High School after graduating from boot camp to give Sokoloski a T-shirt from Parris Island, S.C. - a memento that the teacher holds dear.

He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Marine Division, based in Hawaii, military officials said. In Iraq, Starr was based in a schoolhouse converted into a camp.

He wrote home that his Christmas was marred by a firefight with the enemy.

"But that's just like every other day it seems firefights are as frequent as goin to the bathroom," he wrote in an e-mail. "I'm at base camp for the new years so I eat great chow and watch college football and check my emails."

That could have seemed like a vacation compared to his experience in the battle of Fallujah, the war's costliest urban clash.

In November, Starr described his harrowing combat experience for a military publication. As Charlie Company made its way toward a mosque held by insurgents, gunfire was exploding all around, according to the news publication US Fed News.

"The first left we made I saw four insurgents fire at us with their AK-47s before running into one of the buildings on the street," Starr was quoted as saying. "The next road we had to cross had a large opening that spanned a few hundred feet. I was the first one to run across and I could hear and feel rounds whizzing by. All I was thinking about was to take cover once I got across. That was the biggest adrenaline rush I ever had in my life."

In an e-mail to his mother, Robin, the Marine wrote about his part in that battle.

"I took some ... metal in the chin and lip but it is only going to cause a little scar they patch it up in like 5 mins. My company had two guys die in the entire 14 day attack ... one was my roomate, one of my buddies lost his arm and leg on the same side.

"I remain focus knowing where I still am. I love you and want you to know I am fine and content knowing I fought house-to-house like the Marines in Hue City in Vietnam. ...

"And," he wrote, "I'm a huge part of American history now."

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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