A total of six Marine Security Guards — the elite corps that stand watch at every U.S. embassy around the world — have died while stationed overseas within two years, including two Marines assigned to the U.S. Embassy Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, according to the Marine Corps.

Task & Purpose attempted to reach family members of each Marine to learn the details of their deaths. According to the parents Task & Purpose reached and other public sources, one Marine died of a medical condition, another in a training accident. A third Marine died of suicide, according to his family. A fourth death was also ruled a suicide, a conclusion rejected by that Marine’s mother. Task & Purpose was unable to reach the family of a fifth Marine. The most recent death, which occurred in December, is still under investigation.

Officials with the Marine Corps declined to confirm the details behind the deaths of any of the six Marines. Task & Purpose has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for information related to the investigations into the deaths of all six Marines.

Two Marine guards died 15 months apart while stationed at the same small embassy in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. Marine Cpl. Christian “CJ” John Zerbe died by suicide on Sept. 18, 2022, a Marine Corps investigation concluded; an investigation is still pending into the Dec. 19 death of Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Dural.

The other four Marine Security Guards who died while assigned overseas are:

  • Marine Sgt. Ariel Castillo died in May 2022 while assigned to the U.S. Embassy, Madrid, Spain.
  • Marine Sgt. Dylan Pena died in May 2022 while serving at the U.S. Embassy, Guatemala City, Guatemala.
  • Marine Cpl. Elwin Ramirez died December 2022 while assigned to the U.S. Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria.
  • Staff Sgt. Julian Hernandez died April 2023 while serving as a Marine Security Guard detachment commander at the U.S. Embassy, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

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Of those Marines, Pena’s death was ruled a suicide, though his mother rejects that explanation; Ramirez was accidentally shot by another Marine in a training accident and Hernandez died of a heart attack, according to the Marines’ families.

Task & Purpose could not reach Castillo’s family.

Marine Security Guards
Top, left to right: Marine Sgt. Dylan Pena; Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Dural; Marine Staff Sgt. Julian Hernandez. Bottom: Cpl. Christian John Zerbe, Cpl. Elwin Ramirez, and Marine Sgt. Ariel Castillo. All six Marines died since May 2022 while serving overseas as Marine Security Guards. (Photos courtesy of families)

A Mother Dissents

Pena died of a gunshot wound to the head, Prensa Libre reported in 2022. Although the Marines ruled his death as a suicide, Pena’s mother Paula Freites told Task & Purpose that she believes her son was killed by someone else.

“The relationship I had with my child is very intricate,” Freites told Task & Purpose. “I suffer from depression. I’ve been there. I know the signs. I’m not saying that he was happy. He was miserable in Guatemala. He didn’t like it there. He didn’t like the job that they were asking him to do and the abuse, but he was not suicidal.”

Freites said that her son was scheduled to go on vacation shortly before he died, and his mood was happy at the time. 

Shortly before Pena’s death, Freites said, family members received a text saying “I love you.” Freites does not believe Pena sent the text. She also said she told investigators that a note Pena  left did not sound like him.

“The note addressed me in a way that he never addressed me,” Freites told Task & Purpose. “And then I showed them all the texts and all the documentation that he never called me that. You assume that every child calls their mother ‘mom.’ He didn’t call me ‘mom.’ It’s little things like that. When you know, you know.”

A Father’s Lingering Questions

On the early afternoon of September 18, 2022, Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, found one of their own, Cpl. Christian John Zerbe, dead at Post One, the name that all Marine Security Guards use for the detachment’s command post within an embassy. Zerbe’s death was ruled a suicide by a command investigation obtained by Task & Purpose. He had had a fairly typical night out drinking with his fellow Marines the night before, the investigation found, although as the night wore on he told a local woman that he had decided to quit the Marine Security Guard program.

But Zerbe’s father, John Zerbe Jr., said he still has questions about why his son died.

“I talked to my son on the Thursday before he killed himself,” John Zerbe Jr. said. “He was happy, lifting weights, talking about his plans with his fiancé and everything. Then Sunday afternoon, two Marines knock on the door. So, I have no idea what caused it.”

Christian John Zerbe excelled at recruit training, and he wanted to join U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command, but was unable to because he was color blind, said his father, a Marine veteran. Zerbe instead trained as a finance specialist before becoming  a Marine Security Guard. He told his father he would have preferred to serve in the infantry.

Back in the Republic of the Congo, he received above-average performance reviews in which his supervisors noted his positive attitude. In July 2022, he returned to the U.S. for a week to undergo stomach surgery. While there he proposed to his girlfriend. 

In January, Zerbe’s father was stunned to hear that a second Marine had died at the embassy in Brazzaville, especially since less than a dozen Marines are assigned to the embassy at any given time, John Zerbe Jr. said.

“I know that they’re all well tested,” he said.  “They go through a whole bunch of mental training and stuff like that. I don’t know what’s happening. The only reason I’m into this is I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t happen to any other young Marines.”

A Second Death in Brazzaville 

On March 9, 2023, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Dural was a newly-minted Marine Security Guard with orders to report to Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo when he and two other new MSGs stopped into a Chick-fil-a in ​​North Stafford, Virginia. When a fight broke out between three teenagers, Dural and the other Marines broke up the fight, and Dural disarmed one of the attackers who had pulled a knife.

“I had my left hand on basically the back of the blade and the top of the hilt of the knife,” Dural told reporters in April. “When I was pushing down and twisting, since I had the blade basically in my hand – the back of the blade – when I was twisting it, I guess I put so much pressure down there I was able to snap the knife.”

For stepping in, he and the other two Marines were later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

Nine months later, his parents confirmed that Dural had died in Brazzaville. His death is still under investigation. His parents could not be reached for comment for this story but in January his mother Kimberly Dural told Task & Purpose that her son aspired to become a Marine as a child.

“There was no deterring him,” Kimberly Dural said. “He wanted to serve as a Marine.”

“The Face of America

Becoming a Marine Security Guard is a selective process within the Marines. The job is one of the service’s four “special duty,” or “B billet,” positions open to Marines who intend to advance beyond the most junior ranks. Marine Security Guards have been stationed at U.S. embassies since 1949 tasked with both the practical concerns of physical security for diplomats and to fill a symbolic U.S. military presence. MSGs are commonly among the most visible Americans in the countries they are assigned and hold themselves to be “the face of America” while on duty.

The Marine Corps has more than 1,600 Marine Security Guards stationed at embassies around the world. MSGs generally serve for three years, split between three duty stations. Photo by 2nd Lt. Anne Pentaleri.
The Marine Corps has more than 1,600 Marine Security Guards stationed at embassies around the world. MSGs generally serve for three years, split between three duty stations. Photo by 2nd Lt. Anne Pentaleri.

Both the Marines and State Department maintain memorials for 12 MSGs killed during attacks on embassies, including several Marines killed in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s and El Salvador and Bierut in the 1980s. The most recent was Sgt. Jesse Nathanael Aliganga, who died in a terrorist bombing in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998.

The Marine Corps currently has roughly 2,300 Marine Security Guards, of which about 1,600 are currently stationed overseas in 137 different countries, Corps officials said.

A spokesman for the Marine Embassy Guard Association — a civilian non-profit “social membership organization that is open to all past or present Marines who have served as Marine Security Guards” — declined to comment to Task & Purpose about the deaths of the six Marines, referring questions to Marine Corps public affairs.

Having six deaths within two years is rare for the relatively small Marine Security Guard community, said Ryan Fitting, a former Marine Security Guard who was posted to Luanda, Angola; Chengdu, China; and London.

“Those are really high numbers,” Fitting told Task & Purpose. “That’s very strange. It’s very rare for there to be deaths at all. That would be alarming to me if I were still a Marine on the program.”

It is also unusual for two Marine Security Guards assigned to a small embassy like Brazzaville to die about 15 months apart, said Fitting, who served as a Marine Security Guard from 2013 to 2016.

“For the most part, being a Marines Security Guard is not a hazardous job,” Fitting said. But it does entail a large workload, so Marine Security Guards can deal with health problems stemming from not getting enough sleep.

Marines assigned to embassies in Africa can also suffer from diseases such as Malaria if they stop taking their medications, Fitting said.

While Fitting has heard of some Marine Security Guards dying by suicide while they are assigned overseas, such deaths were not common, he said.

The Marine Corps increased the number of Marine Security Guards in the wake of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Fitting said.

Marine Col. Kelly Frushour, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, said the standards for Marine Security Guards remained consistent over the years.

“All MSGs [Marine Security Guards] must graduate from MSG School,” Frushour told Task & Purpose. “MSG school is 9 weeks long and has a roughly 25% attrition rate.  Marines must pass an extensive background investigation and in addition to the exams and skill tests at school, all Marines must pass a board where their cumulative school performance is reviewed.”

Starting in 2017, the Marine Corps Embassy Security Guard Group started accepting Marines who sign 5-year infantry contracts and spend their first couple years serving with Marine Barracks Washington, Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG), or Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, Frushour said.

“With MCESG, these Marines are eligible to be placed in all MSG detachments to include MSAU detachments,” Frushour said. “The program ensures a mix of experience and rank at each post.”

The Marine Security Guard program looks for Marines from all Military Occupational Specialties, Frushour said. The biggest challenge is finding Marines who are not married, she said.

Lance corporals and sergeants who serve as Marine Security Guards cannot be married, according to the Marine Corps. Marines at the rank of staff sergeant through master gunnery sergeant can be married if they serve as Marine Security Guard detachment commanders, but they are ineligible for the program if they are single parents with sole custody of their children.

Frushour offered her deepest condolences to the families of the six Marine Security Guards, who have died since January 2022.

“Our Marines are our most precious resource, and the loss of these Marines and those who have gone before, are felt to this day,” Frushour said. “These Marines served their country honorably and their deaths are a tragedy resulting in a significant loss to all who knew them and the United States Marine Corps.”

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