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Marine family's hope transformed into grief

For nine months while her son crewed a helicopter on missions into Iraq, Debbie Harris stayed glued to the television. She waited in dread for a knock on the door that never came.

When her son returned and was stationed in California, Harris relaxed.

But on Friday morning, five months after her son had returned, the knock that Harris had forgotten to fear came.

"It doesn't seem _ I can't say right or fair. It just doesn't seem real," Harris said.

Her son, Cpl. Joshua D. Harris, was one of four Marines aboard a UH-1 Huey helicopter that crashed late Thursday during a training mission at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego.

Three of the Marines were pronounced dead at the crash site. The fourth died later at a nearby hospital.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the helicopter hit utility wires, although it was unclear whether that was the cause of the crash or a result of it.

Harris, 21, was deployed to Kuwait on Jan. 29, 2003, the day after President Bush gave his State of the Union address announcing the nation's readiness to attack Iraq, his family said.

Harris' detachment was soon transporting troops and scouting roads in Iraq. Harris was a navigator and door gunner while in the air and a helicopter maintenance worker on the ground.

"Nine months in Iraq and then he gets killed in a training mission," said his father, Charles Harris. "It just doesn't make sense."

On Saturday, Harris' parents gathered in their New Port Richey home along with Harris' brother, Jacob, 25, his sister, Chasity, 22, and others.

They spread pictures of Harris as a child with red, curly hair on a glass coffee table in the living room.

Harris grew up in Jenkins, Ky., a small town in the Appalachians. As a kid, he liked to ride four-wheelers and play sports.

"That's what everybody did back home," Jacob Harris said. "There wasn't a whole lot else to do."

The family moved to Florida when Harris was a freshman in high school. He was dyslexic and struggled in school, but he was good with mechanics, his family said. He tinkered on a blue 1970 Mustang, replacing its engine.

"It wasn't big enough for him," his father said. "He dropped a 302 in it."

Harris graduated from Gulf High School in 2001, having already signed up with the Marines. He always had talked about joining the military, hoping it would help him pay for college, his family said.

His most recent visit home was at Christmas. On the telephone last week, he told his mother that he was preparing to be deployed in June on an aircraft carrier.

His family is planning a funeral service for him in Jenkins. They plan to set up a scholarship fund to help another dyslexic youth attend college, as Harris had hoped to do.