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04-06-06, 09:41 AM #1
For some, death is a constant companion
For some, death is a constant companion
By TONY PERRY
Los Angeles Times
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The last time he spoke to his wife from Iraq, Maj. Ray Mendoza urged her to visit the injured Marines from his company at the base hospital and be sure to call their wives.
"He prayed every night to bring his boys home safe," Karen Mendoza said. "And that's what happened. I thank God for that."
Four days later, on Nov. 14, 2005, her husband was killed as he prepared to lead his men into battle along the Syrian border. He was the only fatality among the Marines of Echo Company.
But Mendoza, 37, always knew the risks of being a Marine and would not want to be remembered as a victim. It is part of the culture of being an active-duty Marine, part of a divide between the Marine Corps and the civilian community.
"He didn't want to die but he loved being a warrior," his widow said. "He embraced it. He wanted to get rid of all that was bad in the world."
Death has become a way of life for Marines and their families in the three years since the 1st Marine Division crossed into Iraq to lead the assault on Baghdad.
About 275 Marines from the camp have been killed in Iraq and 80 more from the base at Twentynine Palms. Hundreds more have been severely wounded.
And the number of dead and wounded will surely increase because 25,000 troops from the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force returned to Iraq in recent weeks to assume responsibility for much of the violent Sunni Triangle.
Even as she tries not to, Karen Mendoza, 37, is drawn to each new report of a Marine killed in Iraq.
She said she is not ready to remove herself from the military community that was the center of her family's life for so many years as Ray Mendoza served at Camp Pendleton; Quantico, Va.; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"For the civilian community, the war in Iraq is the norm; they've become numb to it," she said. "But the Marine Corps can never become numb to it. Every death of a Marine takes away a little piece of my heart."
In late summer or early fall, Karen Mendoza and the couple's children — Kiana, 12, and Aleksandr, 8 — will need to move from the base. Families of those killed in Iraq are allowed to remain in base housing for a year.
Some widows prefer to return immediately to their hometowns to put distance between themselves and the military. But Karen Mendoza is different.
"It will be hard to leave this world that has been my comfort zone," she said. "I never had to think about the next 10 to 15 years of life. I only had to think about the next duty station and when do I have to start packing."
Vivianne Wersel, whose husband, Lt. Col. Richard Wersel, died of a heart attack after finishing his second tour in Iraq, said many widows feel abandoned when they are required to leave base housing and its supportive atmosphere.
"It's sad enough to lose your husband, but then to feel like we're being ostracized is even worse," said Wersel, who has testified to Congress about the military's treatment of widows.
Karen Mendoza plans to stay in Oceanside so Kiana and Aleksandr can remain in the local Catholic school and stay in contact with Marines who knew and respected their father.
"Both of the kids talk about Ray like he's here," she said. "He's still very much part of our life and our soul."
When the Marines of Echo Company returned to Camp Pendleton in February, Karen Mendoza was there to greet them. "Homecoming is my favorite day of the entire year," she said.
She also had gone to Hawaii so that Aleksandr could join other Echo Company family members aboard ship bringing the Marines home.
The night he heard about his father's death, Aleksandr wrote one of his father's favorite slogans — "Become a leader, not a follower." — on a piece of paper and put it on his bedroom door, where it remains.
Recently he brought home an essay he wrote at school: "My dad died doing his job that he loved. He died surrounded by Marines who loved him."
After growing up in a fatherless home in Queens, N.Y., Ray Mendoza became a wrestling star at Ohio State University.
He loved the Marine Corps discipline and kinship. Family albums are full of pictures of him with his arms over the shoulders of fellow Marines, a buoyant grin on his face.
But as his return to Iraq loomed in early 2005, Mendoza had the kind of premonition common to combat Marines: He would not survive his next tour in Iraq.
He adopted as his favorite song Tim McGraw's "Live Like You're Dying" and threw himself with extra gusto into family activities and off-hour gatherings of Marines and spouses.
Still, he was excited about taking command of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, one of the most battle-hardened companies in the Marine Corps.
A lance corporal who served with him said that, as they prepared to enter Iraq, Mendoza assembled his Marines and promised them: "I will take all of you back home. Not one of you is going to die."
In the early morning hours of Nov. 14, Mendoza was preparing his men for an assault on an insurgent stronghold near the Iraqi border. He had climbed to the top of a knoll to survey what Marines call the battle space when he stepped on an improvised explosive device hidden in the rocky soil.
"He was walking back to his Marines when the IED went off," his wife said, speaking slowly, her eyes glistening. "Other Marines had already stepped there. Maybe I'll understand it years from now."
Mendoza was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego not far from his best friend, Capt. Rick Gannon, who was killed fighting near the Syrian border in April 2004. It had been one of Mendoza's last wishes before he deployed.
"He wanted to be near his Marine brother," his widow said. "This way I know he'll never be alone."
04-06-06, 11:04 AM #2
Stories like this are always heartbreaking and sorrowful and very hard to read, although they must.
I had a flashback to when I had spoken to my then DOD contracted son, who had called me from somewhere "over there". I asked him if he needed anything; was there something I could send him...like maybe a good G-Shock wrist watch? You know what he said? He said, "Dad, I don't wear wrist watches. When it's your time to go...it's your time to go." I frankly have never been the same since. Although we all know that our time is inevitable and we accept it, it is very sobering hearing it from a loved one.
May Major Ray Mendoza U.S.M.C. rest in peace and may his grieving family find the comfort which they require and deserve.
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