TABLE ROCK LAKE, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- Sometimes, losing something can give it even bigger meaning. That's what happened this fall in Missouri, when a Marine veteran lost a memorial bracelet for his brothers killed in the line of duty. In the end, the bracelet's journey home ended up representing more than the Marine could have ever imagined.
In October, 120 feet below the surface of Table Rock Lake and partially buried in sediment, something caught scuba diver Lance Stehling's eye. Stehling, originally from Houston, Texas, recently moved to Missouri to take care of his family's business. Scuba diving is his hobby, and one he's enjoyed for years.
"I found three Apple watches that day," Stehling said. But what he found on the lake floor near a popular jumping cliff ended up being even more valuable than the collection of watches, sunglasses, and cellphones he typically finds.
"It just kind of sparkled," Stehling said. "My light caught it and it sparkled."
It was a metal bracelet, and on it was etched a story of heartbreak.
"[I saw] the names 'Brock Babb' and 'Josh Hines,' and then I saw 'KIA,' and I showed it to the guy piloting the boat with me and he said, 'oh, that's a [Marine's] memorial bracelet,'" Stehling recalled. "I'd never seen one before and I said, 'this looks pretty important.' And I just had to return it."
He posted a picture of the bracelet to a Facebook group for Table Rock Lake, where it was then shared over and over again until it made its way to a Facebook group for 1/24 Charlie Company based in Lansing, Michigan.
"It was a turbulent time"
First Battalion, 24th Marines was augmented, in part, with Marines from K 3/24 based in Terre Haute, Indiana and one platoon from St Louis, Missouri. They arrived in Fallujah, Iraq in mid-September of 2006.
A few weeks later, on October 15, 2006, a Humvee caravan was en route back to base.
"We were up on a mounted patrol," said Tim Lang, of Michigan, who was the gunner in one of the Humvees. "We were at the western edge of Fallujah city, right up against the Euphrates River."
"It was a pivotal point," said Josh Bleill, of Indiana, who was in the back, on the passenger side of the same Humvee. "Fallujah and Ramadi and Baghdad were kind of considered the 'Triangle of Death.' It was a turbulent time."
Lang said he could remember nearly everything from that day, including the bright blue color of the sky and the way the hair on the back of his neck stood up when he saw two seemingly suspicious men on the side of the road. Suddenly there was a flash, followed by smoke, and the sour taste of explosive on his lips.
"We were hit by a roadside bomb, which blew the vehicle up, off the road, and on its side," Lang said. He was was thrown out of the Humvee by the force of the blast.
"My world instantly went black. I was instantly knocked out. I woke up five days later in Landstuhl, German," Bleill said.
Five men from 1/24 Charlie Company were in the Humvee hit by the IED. One was able to walk away. Tim Lang would lose his right leg after 20-something surgeries. Josh Bleill immediately became a double amputee, and endured other extensive injuries. Lance Cpl. Josh Hines and Sgt. Brock Babb died.
"Sergeant Babb had three kids and a wife. Hines had a baby born eight days before we deployed," Lang said. "When you lose somebody, there is just an emptiness, especially when they are a little bit younger and they have so much more to live for and they have family."
"Brock was our sergeant. He was this short, stout guy who was just as nice as anything. He was like a father to all of us," Bleill said. "He watched out for us, stepped up for us. He wanted us to survive, not only in war, but in life."
"Josh Hines was a young, full of life, good looking, great dude. Always had everybody laughing. And was just truly selfless," Lang said when remembering his brother-in-arms.
Both Lang and Bleill spent years in the hospital recovering. After the blast, they were whisked away for emergency care so fast they never got to thank in-person the other men who pulled them to safety that day.
That was, until this fall. The Warrior Reunion Foundation brought them, as well as the Gold Star families, together once again.
"I don't know how to sum it up. It was one of the most special things I've had. A moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life," Lang said. "You've shared blood, sweat, tears ... literally. You also feel like there is nobody else who truly understands what you've gone through. And all of that happens without even sharing a word. You just go give them a hug and all that is being shared mutually and you don't even have to discuss it."
A couple of weeks after the reunion, Lang, who said he rarely uses social media, hopped on Facebook in search of pictures from the get-together. But a different picture, shared to a veterans group he's in, caught his eye.
"I just felt them right with me"
"I instantly recognized it," Lang said, referring to the picture of his missing bracelet, honoring Lance Cpl. Hines and Sgt. Babb.
Years ago, Lang bought the engraved bracelets for himself and Bleill when they were in the hospital.
"We don't need bracelets to remember those guys by any means but it's a constant reminder that they are on our mind. That they are physically with us and when you lose something like that, it’s emotional because it’s almost like reliving that loss again," Bleill said.
Lang had video proof to explain how it ended up at the bottom of Table Rock Lake. Exactly one week before Stehling found it, Lang was on a family vacation in Branson. They rented a boat and went to a cliff popular for jumping, where he couldn't pass up the chance to splash into the water with his siblings, who helped him navigate his way to the top of the rock wall with one leg, after he left his prosthetic in the boat.
"I always joke that I’m on my last leg so I don't want to lose it. But that wasn't going to hold me back. Eventually I decided I was just going to take the leg off and climb up the cliff. I love to do everything I was able to do before," he said.
Lang sent Stehling the video of the jump, showing the splash that slipped the bracelet off his wrist and to the bottom of the lake.
"I was ecstatic and relieved that I didn't have to worry about a person missing a very sentimental item," Stehling said. He immediately put the bracelet in the mail to Lang in Michigan.
As the days passed and the calendar approached the anniversary of that fateful October 15, Lang was feeling the weight of it all. That night, he ran out to the mailbox.
"It was on the 15th that it came in the mail to me, which is the 15 year anniversary. Just the way I was feeling, it instantly changed the whole mood because I just felt them right with me. To me, that part is the most special," he said.
St. Louis Marine killed in Fallujah
First Battalion, 24th Marines continued the fight in Fallujah long after the IED blast in October 2006. Twenty-two of the Marines in the battalion were killed, including eight in Charlie Company alone. A young man from St. Louis, Matthew Pathenos, was one of those killed. Pathenos originally belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, which is based at Lambert Field, and was sent to augment the Michigan-based 1st Battalion, 24th Marines.
"The things that really struck me about him was he was always happy, always laughing, always extremely very witty, and extremely well-liked," Lang said of Pathenos, who fellow Marines nicknamed "Greek." "He was the guy you wanted to hang out with."
"He always had a smile on his face, he was always a good Marine," Bleill added. "It's hard thinking back on those guys we lost. Pathenos, he was always there. One heck of a guy. We love him and we love his family."
In sharing their story about the lost and found bracelet, Pathenos’s fellow Marines asked to ensure his family in St. Louis knows he, too, will never be forgotten.
"Any chance to bring up those guys' names again, that's the most important piece to all of this. We haven't forgotten their sacrifice, we haven't forgotten what they've done for our freedom, we haven't forgotten the families of those that have suffered the ultimate sacrifice," Lang said.