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Marines remember comrade who volunteered for difficult duties

BAGHDAD, Iraq—To hear his buddies tell it, Pfc. Juan Garza Jr. was a Marine's Marine, a man who volunteered for anything, who never complained about a mission, whose gung-ho attitude shamed his older brothers-in-arms.

So it was in character Tuesday when Garza, 20, was one of those who volunteered to provide covering fire from a sandbagged bunker as the rest of his platoon used a berm to fight Iraqi forces for the Baghdad side of a bridge across the Diyala River.

Garza put a cigarette in his mouth, recalled Pfc. Charles King, and told King to get in the hole.

"All of a sudden, he turned around," King sobbed. "Two shots rang out We yelled for the corpsman. We looked at his flak [jacket], and blood just poured out. The staff sergeant said just stay with him. The last words I heard from him were, `I'm OK.'"

But he wasn't. He died less than an hour later, wounded in the chest, when cardiopulmonary resuscitation failed. His body was wrapped in an American flag and placed aboard the helicopter that had been summoned to evacuate him. He was the only man of the 1,000-strong 1st Battalion 4th Marine Regiment to die during the march to Baghdad.

Sunday, his battalion gathered at its base in eastern Baghdad to remember Garza, who hadn't been a Marine for long.

About 150 of his fellow Marines—led by his buddies in Bravo Company's 1st Platoon—sat around a makeshift shrine fashioned from his vest, rifle and helmet. Voices choked with grief as they described Garza as a small but tough guy who, despite his hardscrabble youth, had a very generous heart.

A native of Harlingen, Texas, who lived most recently in Bedford, Mich., Garza had entered the Marine Corps last summer and was a newly graduated infantryman when he joined the battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in December.

Some remembered him as the "crazy Mexican" or, in the words of one friend, Pancho Villa without the mustache.

His platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Dennis Collins, recalled a trip that he and Garza made to Marine headquarters at Camp Commando in Kuwait as the Marines awaited further orders in March. Garza had a choice of standing in a three-hour line to make a telephone call home or going to the base store. He skipped the phone call and went to the base store to buy $150 of food and candy—known as "pogie bait"—for other Marines in his company.

"I asked him, `Garza, why didn't you call your wife?'" Collins said. "He said, `The other Marines don't get to make a phone call. ...They wanted pogie bait.'"

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The Marines praised Garza as one of their most dedicated infantrymen, one who wanted to prove himself by always being first to volunteer for difficult duties.

When a plan during the war called for the battalion to return to Shatrah, where it had earlier encountered heavy resistance from Iraqi fighters, some higher-ups balked and expressed reservations among themselves.

One 31-year-old sergeant, who did not want to be identified, complained about it within earshot of Garza. The young Marine told him, "Well, it's something we've got to do."

"It made me look at myself and say `Hell, what am I doing? Go do it,'" the sergeant said.

The mission was later assigned to another battalion.

Garza constantly talked about his wife, Casey, an Army solider based near Washington, D.C. They'd married Dec. 26 after the battalion learned that it would be going to Kuwait and possibly Iraq.

Garza's family, which included two sisters, had broken up when he was a child, and he'd been raised by an aunt and uncle in Michigan. He hadn't had any contact with his mother for five years, his friends said.

But just before the battalion left Kuwait for Iraq a month ago, Garza's wife wrote that his mom had been in touch and had sent photographs of two younger half siblings Garza had never met. He proudly showed the photographs and said he was looking forward to the family reunion that his mother was planning after he returned home.

In a short but searingly honest autobiography that Garza had written for his platoon commander, Lt. Scott Cuomo, he explained how his rough-and-tumble background had motivated him to make a better life for himself.

"I'm the only one in the Garza family to ever succeed in life," Garza wrote. "Since I was a kid, my dream was to be a United States Marine."

Cuomo said he wants to eventually show Garza's family some of the photographs of happy Iraqi children, smiling and greeting the platoon along its route. "I'm sorry that I couldn't bring you home," Cuomo said, speaking directly to Garza.

The Marines filed past the makeshift shrine. Some touched his helmet. Some knelt. Some wept. Then the service ended. It was time to go back to their duties.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+marines

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