Once a Marine, always remembered

26 May 2003 | Sgt. L.A. Salinas

When Marines honor one of their fallen brethren there are speeches, memorial services with the families and, at times, the media. But, knowing the personalities of our fallen Marines and understanding what happened to them could only be told by the warriors that served with him.

To tell the story of Pfc. Juan G. Garza, killed by enemy fire near Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom, three Marines offer their thoughts on the events of that fateful morning of April 8, and the void Garza left.

The father figure in the Marine infantry squad is usually the squad leader. He is known for giving guidance to his Marines, whether it is about the Marine Corps or life.

Sgt. Zachary D. Lott, squad leader with 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, played that role for Garza.

"From day one I was Garza's squad leader," said the 21-year-old. "He was one of the most motivated and loyal Marines I ever met."

Marines might have a reputation for being the toughest and strongest, but according to Lott what was strongest about Garza was inside him. "He had a huge heart," said the Salt Lake City native. "He wasn't the biggest kid, he had skinny arms, but he would put up a fight with the biggest guy.

"When you were around him, you could call his name and he would be ready to do anything."

From the seat of a Humvee, Lott explains what he saw on the morning of April 8.

"The mission was to secure the near side of the bridge near Hassan Al Haza so forces with 5th Marines could safely move across the bridge," said Lott. "We where shooting at people 180 degrees around us. Garza was in a fighting hole near us. He lifted himself up to see where the rest of the squad was firing from and a sniper shot him from the back."

There was no scream from Garza, there was no panic.

"When he got shot he grabbed his chest and quietly said, 'I'm hit," said Lott.

According to Lott, the squad was still faced with the uncertainty that there were enemy in the area and the squad wasn't about to let its guard down.

"For the first couple of days everybody was in the fighting mindset," said Lott. "Then [his death] hit us real hard.

"We had a memorial service for him and that brought some closure," said Lott.

What he remembers most about Garza is that he was always talking about his wife. Always the father figure, Lott, who has been married for two years, gave Garza pointers on his own marriage.

Within the family of a Marine infantry squad, team members rely on each other as brothers. Lance Cpl. Charles W. King, saw-gunner with 1st Bn., 4th Marines, played that role in the fighting hole where the shooting happened.

"We volunteered to be in the fighting hole for security for everything behind us," said the 19-year-old from Greensboro, N.C. "We just volunteered, we never knew why at the time."

As the shooting around the Marines started, and before Garza made the fateful gesture of looking over the fighting hole, the rush of being in battle began to take over the squad. Looking back on that day, King knows why they raised their hands.

"We volunteered because our adrenalin was pumping. If staff sergeant says he needs two volunteers and you are the two closest, you volunteer whether you like it or not."

When the bullets started flying, Garza inspired the other Marines.

"As soon as his adrenalin pumped in, he was wired," said King. "He was a scrapper. When we were in that sand-bagged bunker, we never really felt threatened," he said. "He was always looking out for me."

King remembers Garza talking about is his relationship with his mother, and how he'd been trying to contact her over the years. "He moved out of his house and moved to Michigan with his aunt and uncle," said King. "He lost contact with his mom, and would always talk about how his wife found her."

While in Iraq, he learned that his wife had made contact with his mother. It was apparent to those around him that, in his heart, he was reunited with her, however he would not get the chance to see her again.

Perhaps the most important person in Garza's military family is Pfc. Cesar Gonzalez, rifleman with 1st Bn. 4th Marines.

Marines are well known for their camaraderie, and the friendship between Garza and Gonzalez was a close one.

Neither would know the impact of each other's friendship when they met at the School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, Calif. According to Gonzalez, they slept in bunks next to each other and pretty much kept to themselves, until Garza introduced himself one day.

"We didn't have anyone to talk to," said Gonzalez. "He would call his wife and I would listen to music."

Garza would tell his friend about his childhood - how his mom left him at the age of 13, and how he lived on the streets. He talked about how his aunt and uncle put him through military school. He spoke to him about how he missed his mother and he vowed to see her again.

His promises exemplified his values.

"He said if he ever had kids he would never leave them," said Gonzalez.

This partnership would follow them through to their first duty assignment, known in the Marine Corps as "the fleet."

"Once we got to the fleet, we had to stick with whom we knew," said the 19-year-old from New Braunfels, Texas. "If there was a working party, we would both be on it."

According to Gonzalez, the two would meet everyday after their final unit formation and on the weekends. They would prove inseparable, confiding in each other their failings and accomplishments.

When the orders to head for Iraq came, it caught them both off guard.

"We both thought, "we are really going to do this," said Gonzalez. When we got in [the fleet] we thought, "maybe in a couple of years, but not after five months."

The unit would embark on a journey that would liberate a country, but at a heavy price.

Gonzalez remembers how close he was to being next to his best friend during Garza's last day alive. 

"When I saw him in the fighting hole, I asked if I could go over there and be with him," said Gonzalez. "Sergeant Lott told me, 'yeah go ahead.'"

As it turned out, fate intervened and left Gonzalez to watch it unfold.  "I started to get up and go and then Sergeant Lott said, 'no you would be safer here'." Said Gonzalez.

"Ten minutes later, Garza got shot," he said.

"How can I go home and not bring my friend home with me," Gonzalez asked. "How is his wife going to feel?"

Remembering Garza, his best friend summed up his thoughts on him. "He was actually like my brother," said Gonzalez. "My other brothers are in college and I don't get to see them much. He was like another brother."

Even more, Gonzalez looked for a higher power to explain the impact that Garza would have on him.

"It was more like God made Garza my best friend in the whole world."

Seventy-six Marines have made the ultimate sacrifice during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Pfc Juan G. Garza is one of them.  Their names will be forever remembered.

Lance Cpl. B.E. Anderson, 26, Durham, N.C.
Chief Warrant Officer A.T. Arnold, 30, Spring Liberty, Texas.
Capt. J.Y. Aubin, 36, Kennebel, Maine.
Lance Cpl. A.J. Aviles, 18, Palm Beach, Fla.
Pfc. C.E. Bales, 21, Howard, Texas.
Capt. R.A. Beaupre, 30, McLean, Ill.
Sgt. M. Bitz, 31, Ventura, Calif.
Lance Cpl. T.A. Blair, 24, Wagoner, Okla.
Gunnery Sgt. J.E. Bohr, 39, Ossian, Iowa.
Lance Cpl. C.E. Bruns, 22, Vancouver, Wash.
Lance Cpl. B.R. Buesing, 20, Levy, Fla.
Pfc. T.D. Burkett, 31, Erie, N.Y.
Staff Sgt. J. W. Cawley, 41, Santa Cruz, Ariz.
Cpl. K.A. Chanawongse, 22, New London, Conn.
Chief Warrant Officer, R.W. Channell, 36, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
2nd Lt. T.S. Childers, 20, Harrison, Miss.
Lance Cpl. D.J. Cline, 21, Washoe, Nev.
Capt. A.J. Contreras, 31, Corvallis, Ore.
Cpl. M.A. Evnin, 21, Chittenden, Vt.
Lance Cpl. D.K. Fribely, 26, Lee Fla.
Capt. T.A. Ford, 30, Ogallala, Neb.
Cpl. J.A. Garibay, 21, Orange, Calif.
Pfc. J.G. Garza, 20, Monroe, Mich.
Pvt. J.L. Gifford, 30, Macon, Ill.
Cpl. J.A. Gonzalez, 20, Los Angeles, Calif.
Cpl. J.A. Gonzales, 22, Riverside, Calif.
Cpl. B.G. Gooden, 22, My Vernon, N.Y.
Lance Cpl. J.F. GonzalezRodriguez, 19, Los Angeles, Calif.
Lance Cpl. J. Gutierrez, 22, Los Angeles, Calif.
Pfc. C.D. Gurtner, 19, Ohio City, Ohio.
Sgt. N.M. Hodson, 22, Smithville, Mo.
Pvt. N.R. Hutchings, 20, Anderson, S.C.
Cpl. E.T. James, 20, Hancock, Ill.
Petty Officer 3rd Class M.V. Johnson, 25, hometown not avail.
Staff Sgt. P.A. Jordan, 42, Brazdria, Texas.
Cpl. B.M. Kennedy, 25, Harris, Texas.
Lance Cpl. N.B. Kleiboeker, 19, Irvington, Ill.
Sergeant B.S. Korthaus, 28, Scott, Iowa.
Pfc. J.H. Kowalik, 21, Niles, Ill.
Lance Cpl. A.D. Lam, 19, Alamanle, N.C.
Sgt. M.V. Lalush, 23, Troutville, Va.
Capt. A. Lamont, 31, Eureka, Calif.
Lance Cpl. J.B. Maglione, 22, hometown not avail.
Cpl. D.J. MarencoReyes, 28, San Bernardino, Calif.
Lance Cpl. M.A. MartinezFlores, 21, Duarte, Calif.
Staff Sgt. D.C. May, 31, hometown not avail.
Sgt. B.D. McGinnis, 23, St George, Del.
1st Lt. B.M. McPhillips, 25, Plymouth, Mass.
Cpl. J.M. Medellin, 21, Fort Worth, Texas.
Gunnery Sgt. J. Menusa, 33, San Jose, Calif.
Cpl. J.D. Mileo, 20, Pasadena, Md.
Lance Cpl. J. Moore, 21, San Marcos, Calif.
Maj. K.G. Nave, 36, Union Lake, Mich.
Cpl. P.R. Nixon, 31, hometown not avail.
Lance Cpl. P.T. Oday, 20, hometown not avail.
Lance Cpl. E.J. Orlowski, 26, hometown not avail.
Lance Cpl. D.E. Owens, 20, Winchester, Va.
Sgt. F. PadillaRamirez, 26, Yuma, Ariz.
2nd Lt. F.E. Pokorney, 31, Nye, Nev.
Sgt. B.C. Reiss, 23, Natrona, Wyo.
Sgt. D.R. Rios, 25, Hammond, Ind.
Cpl. R.M. Rodriguez, 21, Bronx, N.Y.
Cpl. R.K. Rosacker, 21, San Diego, Calif.
1st Lt T. Ryan, 30, Aurora, Ill.
Capt B.W. Sammis, 29, Rehoboth, Mass.
Cpl. E.H. Silva, 22, Imperial, Calif.
Lance Cpl. T.J. Slocum, 22, Adams, Colo.
1st Sgt. E. Smith, 38, Chicago, Ill.
Lance Cpl. M.R. Smith, 20, Madison, Ind.
Sgt. K.A. Straseskie, 23, Beaver Dam, Wis.
Lance Cpl. SuarezDelSolar, 20, Escondido, Calif.
Staff Sgt. R.A. Tejeda, 26, New York, N.Y.
Staff Sgt. Waters-Bey, 29, Baltimore, Md.
Lance Cpl. M.J. Williams, 31, Yuma, Ariz.
Staff Sgt. A. White, 27, Shawnee, Okla.
Lance Cpl M.W. White, 24, Brooklyn, N.Y.