Marine Cpl. Aaron Allen, 24, Buellton; killed in combat in Iraq
By Corina Knoll

December 14, 2008

It was as if he knew it would be his last camping trip.

While others planned to sleep in their recreational vehicles, Aaron Allen grabbed sleeping bags and pitched a tent. In water chilled by the onset of fall, he bodysurfed until his fingers turned blue. Frisbees were flung, baseballs thrown. He ran his father ragged with activities. As dusk turned the sun copper, he set up chairs on the sand to admire the horizon with his girlfriend.

And then, when night finally fell that day in September, Allen built a bonfire on the beach at Camp Pendleton while his family and friends gathered to throw back beers and tell stories amid the crackle of the flames.

Allen looked around at his company and told his father, "I don't think life gets much better than this."

A week later, Cpl. Aaron M. Allen, 24, deployed to Iraq for the second time since enlisting in the Marine Corps in 2004. He was scheduled to return home in late December but was killed in combat Nov. 14 in Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

Reared in Buellton, Calif., by his mother, Cathy, after his parents divorced, he knew long before he graduated from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School that he wanted to serve in the military like his grandfather and half brother Michael before him. They were Navy men, though, and Allen was determined to become a Marine.

"I think he felt like that was the branch that best represented his feelings about wanting to do his duty for the country," said his father, also named Michael. "One thing about Aaron -- when he made up his mind, he fulfilled his goals."

Allen also was one for rousing a crowd. Like the time he and his football teammates were chewed out by their high school coach after a shoddy performance. The coach refused to ride back with them, and the mood on the bus was depressing. Allen persuaded the driver to crank up the radio and soon the bus was rocking with laughter, the aisle filled with dancing players. Allen himself was known for his ability to bust out hip-hop moves.

"He'd dance goofy and serious," recalled his stepsister Whitney, 16. "There's this thing called the Superman dance by Soulja Boy, and he was the best at it."

Allen often hung out with Whitney and her sister Ashley when he visited his father's home in San Bernardino County.

"He never treated me like I was his stepsister; he always treated me like I was blood," Whitney said. "I could talk to him about the world -- about school and things that I probably wouldn't have talked about with my mom and dad. He gave me pretty good advice, telling me not to let anyone get you down, and don't ever settle for anything less than what you deserve."

In addition to his parents, half brother and stepsisters, Allen is survived by his sister Amy, half sister Tamie Anderson and grandmother Linda Fenton. Family members said he had planned on proposing to his girlfriend, Kelly Zajac.

At Allen's vigil, held Nov. 24 at Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, Whitney nervously read a moving poem she discovered on Then, one after another, people walked to the front of the church and told a story about the fallen Marine. But the hours-long memorial was cut short when a lighting ballast in the balcony caught fire. People at the service laughed, blaming it on Allen, who had planned on becoming a firefighter after he was out of the military.

The next day, the procession that followed the cream-colored hearse to the military ceremony at Oak Hill Cemetery in nearby Ballard stopped traffic as it made its way through Allen's childhood stomping grounds.

Students and faculty at Allen's former elementary school stood outside to pay their respects to a hometown boy. Streets were lined with American flags and billboards bore messages of support for Allen's family. Some people came from nearby Buellton, a city with a population of less than 4,500, to pay their respects.

"It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life," his father said. "Everyone was so aware. [As we were] driving down the street, people going the opposite direction parked their cars and would get out and put their hand over their heart."

The gesture moved him, but the procession is not what has replayed in his head over the last few weeks. It is instead that September camping trip that remains at the forefront of his thoughts, a father-son moment that would become their last.

"I had no idea while we were there how important that time would be," he said.

That weekend produced comforting images -- Aaron coercing him into taking a plunge into a cold ocean, engaging him in a game of catch, confiding in him by the fire -- that he says feel like goodbye gifts from a departed son.

Knoll is a Times staff writer.