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April 30, 2008

Harbor Carries Him In Its Heart



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"I watched him grow into such a wonderful man. He left here a young boy from Sag Harbor just three months out of high school and he chose the Marine Corps because it was the hardest," said a grief-stricken JoAnn Lyles of her son Lance Cpl. Jordan Christian Haerter.

On April 22, Haerter was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq while guarding a military checkpoint. He was 19 years old. The only child of Lyles and Christian Haerter, the young Marine also left behind family members, friends and a whole community hollowed by the news.

A Pierson High School graduate, Haerter enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 2006. He was a member of the First Battalion, Ninth Marines.

"I was so proud of him. His whole family was so proud of him," said Lyles.

Not since World War II has a Sag Harbor resident been killed in action, local veterans groups report. Haerter was the 30th Long Islander to be killed in war-torn Iraq since the conflict began in 2003.

The checkpoint Haerter manned was located outside the city of Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni Anbar province. The young Marine reportedly shot the driver of a truck loaded with explosives after orders to stop the vehicle were ignored. The truck subsequently veered away from several U.S. troops and detonated. Haerter, and another Marine, Cpl. Jonathan T. Yale, 21, were killed in the explosion. Among the wounded were three other Marines, two Iraqi police officers and several civilians.

The news of this local fallen soldier swept through the Sag Harbor community, bringing it to its knees. American flags lined Main Street in salute of the hero.

Still, cutting through the pain, loved ones could muse on Haerter's adventurous spirit, devotion to family and goals for the future.

"Jordan took flight lessons and soloed it at 16 years old. And we had to drive him, he couldn't even drive to the lessons in East Hampton," said Lyles. "He was a boy scout. He loved his four-wheel drive truck. He loved [his girlfriend] Nicole. And his father and I loved him very much, and we are oh so very proud of him."

Haerter also had a close bond with his grandmother, Lily Haerter, who he called "Oma." "He cherished her and she cherished him," said Lyles.

He used to bring Nicole Jonat, 18, and some best friends over to Oma's house. "She loved to cook so she'd prepare a huge feast. He would have four servings," Jonat recalled.

April 11 marked the teenage couple's one year anniversary. A friend introduced them. "When we first started dating, he would come out almost every weekend and it was a really expensive trip – about $400 – because his car is such a gas guzzler," said Jonat.

They wrote each other letters, hers often 10 pages long and filled with everyday details and current events. And every time he went back overseas, Jonat gave Haerter a list of instructions.

"I would always make up these rules: 'Do not kill anyone. Walk behind the others.' If he slept in the police station there I told him to always sleep in the middle because if a bomb went off, maybe it wouldn't hurt him if he was in between. I tried to make up all these rules to keep him safe," she said.

Jonat's voiced cracked as she thought about the future they were planning. "He wanted to have a house and get a dog. After college, we would stay in Sag Harbor," she said. He also wanted to get married. "He actually did want to propose to me but I said we should wait a little bit so he gave me a ring – a secret engagement ring. I wear it every day."

Andrew Mayer, 18, grew up next door to Haerter and remembers playing in the sprinklers with his childhood friend. "We were friends ever since I can remember. He will never be forgotten. We all love him here."

On Saturday morning, Haerter's body was flown to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A police motorcade comprised of more than a dozen law enforcement agencies from several states escorted the hearse to Sag Harbor. It passed by dozens of state troopers who stood in honor of the Marine on the side of the Southern State Parkway, near the border of Suffolk and Nassau Counties.

In Sag Harbor, the procession traveled down Main Street as a large crowd looked on, silently. A motorcade of police and fire departments from surrounding towns and villages accompanied the family to the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home.

On Monday, an American flag, drenched in rain, rested at half staff on the Long Wharf, as Haerter was laid to rest at Oakland Cemetery. Scores of people stood in the downpour to pay their respects.

"We're so thankful to all of Sag Harbor and all of the surrounding communities and Suffolk County, all the police, all the fire departments," said Lyles. "I cannot believe the outpouring of love and support, the respect and mostly honor for my son."

Knowing Haerter wanted to be a policeman, the Sag Harbor and Southampton Police Departments made the young man an honorary officer.

"The love and support he and his family are being shown is such an amazing thing, but I hope to never see it again," said Roz Jonat, Nicole's mother. "He was such a wonderful young soul, who had so much potential and his whole life in front of him. It's heart-wrenching. But he died a hero."

"In his yearbook I wrote that we were looking forward watching him grow and thrive and see his future," said Lyles in a broken voice. "And I hope he feels all of this love, I hope he feels all the prayers."

The poet e.e. cummings wrote, "I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) . . ." The sentiment will hang in the air in Sag Harbor, as the community salutes a hero and strives to comfort his survivors.

clondon@indyeastend.com

lfinn@indyeastend.com

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