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      Family remembers Mullins Marine killed in Afghanistan

      Pictures from the family of Gunnery Sgt. EJ Pate

      The family of a Mullins Marine killed Sunday in Afghanistan says he wanted to be a Marine ever since he was a boy.

      Gunnery Sergeant Ralph Pate Jr., 29, couldn't wait to join the US Marine Corps. He enlisted right after graduating from Mullins High School at age 17.

      The home where Pate grew up on Park Street in Mullins is decorated with American flags and patriotic bows.

      "EJ" as he was affectionately called was due to come home in September from his deployment in Afghanistan.

      He died Sunday in combat operations.

      "It was heart crushing. It was so surreal. It was almost like it could not be happening," said his cousin Lisa Collins.

      Pate's family says they always knew it was a possibility, but they never expected him to be killed because he had served overseas so many times.

      He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, 2006, and 2008 and in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009 and 2011.

      Pate's family says they never heard him complain about going to war.

      Collins said, "His main goal in life was to become a Marine, and that's what he really wanted to do, and that's what he loved doing. He loved his job. He loved his country and he wanted to protect all the rights that we have in the United States."

      His sacrifice has given his family a new found respect for the upcoming Independence Day.

      "That is one of the true reasons why we do have our own independence now. People like EJ that gave all he had for us and of our freedoms, so he is the true face of I ndependence Day," said Collins.

      P ate served in the Marines for 12 years.

      He is survived by his wife and two children, ages 8 and 10.

      A private memorial service will be held for him later this week

      From a Department of Defense release:

      The US Marine Corps says Gunnery Sgt. Ralph E. Pate Jr., 29, of Marion, died Sunday while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

      The Marine Corps says Pate was an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to 2nd EOD Company, 8th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

      Pate received the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Action Ribbon with Gold Star in lieu of second award, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with three gold stars in lieu of fourth award.