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thedrifter
04-18-06, 01:55 PM
Reluctant hero awarded Silver Star

By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer

The accolades came from his parents, platoon mates, silver-haired war heroes, even his division commanding general.

"We are proud of him," Blanca Gomez said of her son, Carlos Gomez-Perez, shortly before he received the Silver Star during an April 12 ceremony. Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, who commands the 1st Marine Division, called him "a true hero" for his actions one April morning two years ago as a lance corporal in the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah.

But for all that, Gomez-Perez was a reluctant hero.

"Honestly, I remember everything," Gomez-Perez said, standing before a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras. "What I could have done different? What someone else could have done different?"

For two years, memories of that day - April 26, 2004 - have remained front and center in his mind: A predawn assault into two houses in Fallujah's Jolan district. The sudden explosion of gunfire. The sensation of 7.62mm rounds slicing into his right shoulder and face. Determination to fight back and never surrender.

When the day was over, Gomez-Perez suffered the loss of a close friend and wounds that ultimately forced his medical retirement.

"Do I feel like a hero?" he said, after the ceremony. "No, I don't feel like a hero. I don't." He asked that people honor their sacrifices with a moment of silence.

It's an emotional memory that brings with it regret and a sense that he didn't do enough to save his friend, Lance Cpl. Aaron L. Austin of Sunray, Texas. It also carried deep pride in his platoon's performance. With bearhugs, handshakes and some teasing, they congratulated him.

In the Marine Corps' eyes, he showed "bold leadership, wise judgment and complete dedication to duty," and his "fierce defense halted a determined enemy assault and enabled the evacuation of wounded Marines," reads his award citation. During the short ceremony at Camp Horno, Calif., home to his former unit, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, Natonski pinned a Silver Star medal onto the left breast pocket of Gomez-Perez's black suit jacket. Members of the battalion and a crowd of about 50 - including his wife, Samantha, his parents and two sisters - watched under a bright blue sky.

It was a bittersweet day for the former rifleman and team leader, the ceremony coming at his request on the second anniversary of the combat deaths of two fellow 2/1 Marines. Someone had tucked a small Texas flag in his jacket pocket, a reminder of Austin's home state.

Austin's death weighs heavily on Gomez-Perez's mind, as does the guilt he bears for it.

"He's the one who died because I couldn't save him," he said.

Gomez-Perez was on the roof that morning when Austin, in the courtyard, was hit twice by enemy fire. "I could hear him screaming," he recalled. "That's all I could hear was screaming and screaming and screaming. He screamed for about half an hour before we could even take him out of the room."

Amid the battle, he fought through his own pain to toss two grenades at insurgents just yards away, and he fired his M16A4 rifle using his uninjured left hand.

The enemy's rounds tore into his shoulder, but he kept fighting.

"I can't throw with my left hand, so even when I was shot, I continued to throw grenades from my right hand and firing from my right hand," he said.

Austin, who he described as "a go-getter," threw one grenade onto an enemy position and "died in my arms later on," he said. Austin was awarded the Silver Star posthumously in 2005.

Gomez-Perez lives in San Diego with his wife and young son, was medically retired two months ago and is working to recover from his injuries. He became a U.S. citizen last year, but finding and holding a job has been a big challenge of late.

He knows he's not alone in dealing with his temper and his demons. He thinks often of his platoon. They remain close, he said, talking with one another and trying to help each other.

"We're all individuals, but we all connected, some way, and we made a team - actually, a great team," he said. "We've been together for three years. I've been to war with them twice."

Staff Sgt. Oscar Nunez was a machine-gun section leader when havoc broke out that April day.

Nunez credits Gomez-Perez with getting Austin into safer hands after he was shot. "He grabbed him and he brought him inside, otherwise he would have been a complete mess," Nunez said. "We have to thank him for that.

"There's a handful of [Marines] who can very much thank him, and they're glad that they're here," said the 10-year veteran, now a platoon sergeant.

Echo Company saw death and fighting up close during that tense month in Fallujah, but April 26 stands out. Fifteen men with Echo Company died that day.

"We'd been in some battles before that," Nunez said, but few compared to the length of that battle and the sheer number of enemy fighters they faced.

The platoon had moved into the houses around 5 a.m. to observe the area and show presence. Someone spotted insurgents entering a mosque near their position. A squad went to check it out, but found no one there, he said.

Minutes after the squad's return, the battle began. It was a coordinated attack. "I think they had everything planned out," Nunez said. "They knew what to do."

"The enemy closed to within 20 meters of the platoon," said retired Lt. Col. Tom Vetter, reading from Gomez-Perez's medal citation. "That's enemy close. He was firing with his rifle, pulling along the injured Marine with one arm," he added.

I'm in awe of these Marines and sailors," he said.