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Machine gunner wants to work hard in Iraq then return to adopted country

NAME: Lance Cpl. Sidney Mendoza

AGE: 26

HOMTOWN: San Jose, Calif.

BRANCH: Marines

JOB: Combat engineer

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CAMP VIPER, southern Iraq—Lance Cpl. Sidney Mendoza was in a truck moving through the Iraqi desert when he heard a loud bang.

"I guess we went over a land mine," Mendoza says. "I remember thinking somebody shot at me. That was the wildest moment, because I didn't know what it was. I was ready to shoot back, at whoever it was."

Mendoza is the A gunner for a .50 caliber machine gun. It's his job to load the gun, spot where the rounds go and adjust fire.

"All I remember was I was wanting to get up there, load the babies in on the .50 cal and shoot at whoever was shooting, so they wouldn't be shooting at us anymore," Mendoza says.

Mendoza, 26, from San Jose, Calif., is a combat engineer assigned to Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion.

He joined the Marine Reserves after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.

"At that point in time, I started to think, `You know what, America has given me so much,' " he says. "And I decided to join the Marines."

Mendoza was born in Nicaragua. His family moved to San Jose when he was 3.

"My parents have been able to live the American dream," he says. "I'm really grateful for America and all the opportunity that's been given to me."

He became a U.S. citizen when he was 19. "That was the proudest day of my life," he says.

Mendoza lived in San Jose for 20 years. He went to Silver Creek High School and then graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in marketing. He decided to become a pastor and spent a year at a seminary.

"I ended up dropping out because it got expensive," he says. He bounced from job to job, unable to find the right fit. He tried sales, but didn't like it.

"Right before I got activated, I was working with a friend of my dad's in Arizona," he says. "He does income taxes for the Hispanic community, and he opens up franchises. I was going through the process of having my own location to do income taxes, to learn the ropes. Then I was gonna open an income tax businesses, and then I would get a cut from each business. But that plan went out the door for now."

Mendoza married his longtime girlfriend, Martha Garcia, one week before he was deployed. Her father, Pastor Hugo Garcia, performed the ceremony in a chapel in Oceanside, Calif., not far from Camp Pendleton.

"It wasn't as cool as I'd like," he says. "I didn't have any friends or family there."

The conditions in the desert are rough, but he tries to keep a positive attitude.

"I try to look at the bright side," he says. "I have food every day. I have shelter. I'm alive. I'm just doing my job. You can't be out here and think, I hate this, every day. It works on you. You learn to adjust and do your job. I have no fear of dying. If I die, I know I'm going to heaven. But nobody wants to die. I want to go back home and start a family."

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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): iraqfaces+mendoza

Iraq

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