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thedrifter
12-05-05, 01:20 PM
Coming to Terms with the Death of a Marine
Maj. Ray Mendoza -- "a man we all thought to be bullet-proof" because of his great strength, skills and quiet confidence -- died on duty in Iraq.

By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer


To those of us who knew and admired him, Ray Mendoza seemed indestructible. He was too big, too strong, too quietly confident and too much of a natural leader to be brought down like other men.

But war respects none of those qualities.

Mendoza, 37, a major in the Marine Corps from Camp Pendleton, was killed in Iraq three weeks ago while leading his troops into combat.

"If you thought anyone could stare down death and beat it, it was Ray," Lt. Col. Robert G. Oltman, Mendoza's battalion commander, e-mailed me from Iraq.

"He was larger than life. No one, including me, ever thought Ray would not come back," he wrote.

After four tours as an embedded reporter — one in Afghanistan, three in Iraq — I know a fair number of Marines. Some give off an aura of vulnerability or even impending tragedy. Some are obvious risk-takers. And many are so achingly young, so naive despite their high spirits and salty vocabulary, that I immediately worry about their survival.

When I hear that any Marine has been killed, I can sense the grief that has descended on the family and the corps. I'm always saddened but rarely surprised.

Only once has my reaction been of disbelief: No, not him. It can't be. Not Ray Mendoza.

Mine was a common reaction. A condolence website for his family is filled with expressions of incredulity.

"He was a man we all thought to be bullet-proof," Capt. John Griffin said in his eulogy at Mendoza's funeral at a Catholic church in Oceanside.

At 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, Mendoza had been a star wrestler at Ohio State in the 1990s and, as a Marine, an alternate on the 1996 Olympic team. His overtime victory over a reigning champ in the 1993 Big Ten tournament remains one of the Buckeye program's most thrilling moments.

The wrestling program is putting together an inspirational video featuring Mendoza's win that day. The school's football team wore his initials on their helmets during the Nov. 19 Michigan game as a show of respect.

"I'm just not ready to say goodbye to Ray Mendoza yet," said Buckeyes' wrestling coach Russ Hellickson, his voice quavering.

During the fight for Fallouja in April 2004, Mendoza's very presence seemed to provide a sense of safety to those around him.

It was a widely held belief among the 1,100 Marines of the 2nd battalion, 1st regiment, 1st Marine Division that Mendoza, then a captain, was the strongest, toughest Marine of them all.

His shoulders were Herculean. His wrists were the size of an average man's biceps. When he wore running shorts, his legs looked like pillars. And he moved with an athlete's grace, as if he could unleash speed and power at any time; no swagger, just confidence.

But it was not just his buffed-out body or his bone-crushing handshake that gave us all assurance, even as insurgent mortars rained down on the forward outpost of the battalion's headquarters and service company, which he commanded.

It was also his constant smile, his modest demeanor and his rock-solid belief that everything would work out fine. He believed absolutely in the rightness of the U.S. mission in Iraq and the Marine Corps' ability to carry out that mission.

Once — foolishly — I started to venture outside a protected area without my helmet and flak-vest. An enormous hand seized my shoulder from behind. I was immobilized and chastened.

Under Mendoza, the H&S company was responsible for communications, supply, medical triage and myriad other tasks that must be done perfectly if frontline infantry companies are to be effective. Mendoza was good at his job, the same one he'd done at the Marine base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Still, as an infantry officer, Mendoza wanted to command a rifle company, to be at "the tip of the spear."

The last time I saw him was a year ago at the battalion's Marine Corps birthday celebration in the ballroom of an Indian casino in Temecula. He was in his dress blues and his smile was even broader than usual.

"I've been given command of Echo Company," he said, referring to one of the battalion's most combat-hardened units. He would be returning to Iraq within a few months.

Mendoza had been selected to succeed Capt. Douglas Zembiec, a former Naval Academy wrestler. Zembiec was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery during Fallouja and is now in Afghanistan.

As wrestlers, the two shared a bond. I once saw them, playfully, start to throw headlocks and other holds on each other. There was an immediate tension in the air in anticipation of what could have spiraled into a true battle of heavyweights.

Two weeks ago, while attending a memorial service at Camp Pendleton for two Marines whose helicopter was shot down by insurgents, I was taken aside by the wife of a sergeant-major and told that Mendoza had been killed. I sat in the church that morning listening to eulogies for two Marines and thinking about the death of a third.

On Nov. 14, on the 10th day of Operation Steel Curtain, a joint U.S.-Iraqi mission to break up insurgent strongholds along the Syrian border, Mendoza had led his troops to the village of Ubaydi. As he stepped from his Humvee, he was struck full force by a hidden roadside bomb.

"He trained his Marines so well that when he died," Oltman e-mailed, "his Marines did not hesitate or lose composure. They just simply performed flawlessly."

Pushing forward, despite obstacles, was Mendoza's way of dealing with life. Growing up in New York City, Mendoza earned a chance to attend Blair Academy, an elite prep school in Blairstown, N.J.

At Ohio State, he lettered for two years and was a constant presence in the training room, where the sound of free weights clanging to the floor became his trademark. He graduated in 1993 with a degree in history.

"Wrestling is one of those sports were you have to bare your soul, show what you've got when you're tired and exhausted," Hellickson said. "Ray never quit."

In his senior year, Mendoza had a rare lapse in concentration and was beaten on points by conference champ John Oostendorp from the University of Iowa, which had the best wrestling team in the nation.

Two weeks later, at the Big Ten championship in a packed St. John Arena on the Ohio State campus, Mendoza and Oostendorp met a second time.

Mendoza had vowed not to be beaten again, that he would not let the team down. The match, with neither big man able to gain an advantage, went into overtime.

"I'll never forget when Ray threw Oostendorp to the mat and there was an enormous thump," said Michael DiSabato, one of Mendoza's teammates. "Ray got up and circled the arena pumping his fist in the air and the crowd went crazy."

Oostendorp, now a coach at Iowa's Coe College, remembers the match as one of his toughest: "Ray was always on the attack."

Last week, in a memorial to Mendoza, Marines at Camp Pendleton organized a three-mile "motivational hump" up a steep hill. It was a Mendoza thing to do; he had been among a group of Marines who had taken a flag up the same hill.

Mendoza is survived by his wife, Karen; children, Kiana, 12, and Aleksandr, 8; and brothers Niola and Jermaine Mendoza.

At his funeral, attended by hundreds of Marines, wrestlers and other civilians, one of the readings, done by Aleksandr, was from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through He who gives me strength."

To those of us privileged to know Ray Mendoza, the passage had more than one meaning.

Ellie