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Sunday, September 07, 2003

MARINE RECALLED AS A GUARDIAN ANGEL


July 12, 2003
Marine Recalled as a Guardian Angel

By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS TARAWA — In the 3 1/2 months since he died in Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez has become a symbol for pundits and the press. The Guatemalan native came to represent thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines from other lands, fighting their way to citizenship through the U.S. military.

His fellow Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit steamed home this week, however, remembering Gutierrez as a buddy, a can-do Marine and a guardian angel who they believed watched over the rest of their mission. They also recalled in detail how a bullet from one of their own killed the 28-year-old they called "Gutti" on the first day of the war.

"God must have needed him for a good reason, because he was a good person and there is no other reason for him to go so soon," said Lance Cpl. Dominic Masters, 20, of St. Louis, one of 2,000 Marines set to return today and Sunday to Camp Pendleton to a cheering, flag-waving crowd of family members and other well-wishers.

Gutierrez, a rifleman in Echo Company, was killed March 21, hours after Marines stormed into Iraq to secure the port city of Umm al Qasr. As Marines who knew Gutierrez and fought beside him recalled this week, it was a day of fear and confusion.

The Iraqi army was fighting back more vigorously than the Marines had expected. Paramilitary fighters, most dressed in civilian clothing, were firing on Marines from ambush, sometimes using civilians as shields. For the Marines, it was difficult to tell friend from enemy.

The Iraqi strategy of asymmetrical warfare that became common as U.S. forces swept toward Baghdad was being displayed in the streets of Umm al Qasr, a city of strategic importance near the Kuwaiti border and a United Nations outpost.

"We were the first [U.S. forces] to see, 'Hey, they're not doing what we anticipated,' " said Col. Thomas Waldhauser, commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Gutierrez was the unit's only fatality during the war.

Marines from Echo Company were ordered to search dozens of buildings spread over a wide area to make sure they were not being used by Iraqi troops or paramilitary snipers. As artillery hit targets throughout the city and helicopters buzzed overhead, Marines spread out rapidly to conduct a search building by building.

Sgt. Richard Cornell, Gutierrez's squad leader, remembers Gutierrez's calm mood changing quickly as he and other Marines reached the sprawling city in their heavily armed vehicles.

"He was very quiet, not a sound, as a matter of fact. He was so calm, it looked like he was asleep," said Cornell, 22, of Mission Viejo. "But when we first touched ground his eyes opened wide with enthusiasm as to what was going on, and fear as to what was to come."

As Marines fanned out to search the buildings, Gutierrez became separated from other members of his squad, a common occurrence.

He had been trained to operate independently if necessary, to take the initiative even when he was separated from his officers.

Gutierrez had just searched a building and found it empty: no snipers, no Iraqi soldiers and no weapons caches. He left quickly to make his way to the next building. Speed was important.

From 400 meters away, he was seen by another Marine and mistaken for a possible enemy. Gutierrez carried an AT-4, a shoulder-launched, anti-tank weapon on his back.

The Marine who saw him thought it looked like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher like those being used by Iraqis to fire on Marine vehicles and helicopters.

The Marine fired a warning shot to tell Gutierrez to stop. Gutierrez, dressed in a forest-green camouflage uniform, continued to advance. The Marine fired a burst from his M-16, and Gutierrez fell dead.

Within hours, the Marines realized the awful truth: They had killed one of their own.

"It brought the seriousness of the war home to us in a very personal way," said Capt. Pete McAleer, 30, of San Diego. "We had a lot of missions to accomplish within the first few hours and days. There really wasn't much time to dwell on it. [But] during the quiet times, he was never far from our thoughts."

McAleer added, "The rest of the Marines felt as though he was still with us, watching."

Waldhauser, who also commanded combat troops in Afghanistan, later wrote a letter of regret to Gutierrez's sister. Waldhauser said the death was a friendly fire incident. But he opted not to put in the grisly details.

"If she keeps the letter five or 10 years," he said, "I don't want her to have to see those details every time she opens it."

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit — returning on this amphibious assault ship and two smaller vessels, the Rushmore and the Duluth — have invited Gutierrez's family from Southern California to Camp Pendleton for a parade and change-of-command ceremony. "He's part of our family and so is his family," Cornell said. "Many of the Marines will remain in contact with those who cared about him outside the Marine Corps."

Among his fellow Marines, Gutierrez was known for his artistry and his helpfulness. He kept a scrapbook of his work and helped draw a birthday card for a friend's mother. He was so good at fixing things he was nicknamed "MacGyver," after the TV show with the handy hero.

"He was quick with a smile and always seemed to be in high spirits," said Staff Sgt. Isaul Montez, 28, of Midland, Texas. "There's a strong belief within the entire platoon that 'Gutti' is the reason we made it back. He was the angel that looked out for us."

McAleer said Gutierrez "was one of those quiet men who let his actions speak louder than his words His face [will be] burned into my memory for a long time to come."

Lance Cpl. Brad Shuder, 21, of El Dorado Hills said he would always remember the night before the war began, the anxious hours as Marines waited in Kuwait to cross the line of departure into combat.

Their nervousness had taken the talkativeness out of the normally gabby Marines. "It was dark and the stars were out and we were all looking for that last smoke," Shuder said.

"I remember Gutierrez coming up to me and asking for a smoke. We didn't say much. We just stood there looking at the sky, not knowing what was to come, but we knew it was going to be OK.

"All he did was smile before he put out his smoke."

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