Thursday, September 18, 2003


ONE FORTIFYING FIGHTER: Fallen Michigan Marine didn't dodge harm's way

Newbie wrote the book on bravery, say comrades left behind

April 14, 2003


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, who lived most recently in Temperance, Mich., 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. 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-member 1st Battalion 4th Marine Regiment to die during the march to Baghdad.

On Sunday, his battalion gathered at its base in eastern Baghdad to remember Garza, who entered the Marine Corps last summer.

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, Garza was a newly graduated infantryman when he joined the battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in December. Garza constantly talked about his wife, Casey Garza, a soldier based at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. 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 before the battalion left Kuwait for Iraq a month ago, Garza's wife wrote that his mom had been in touch and had sent photos 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.

Casey and Juan Garza had met in January 2002 at their after-school job -- a Wendy's in Lambertville, Mich. She was a senior at Start Senior High School in Toledo and he at Summerfield High School in Petersburg, Mich.

After the war, Casey Garza said Sunday from the Temperance home of her husband's aunt, they planned on having a wedding ceremony for family and friends. Starting a family was also a priority, she said, and they wanted two or three children.

But Casey Garza said she takes solace in knowing that Iraqi "children are free and men and women are free for the first time because my husband gave his life." Though his life was cut short, Casey Garza said, Juan Garza accomplished all of his goals: finishing high school and being a U.S. Marine.

She last spoke with her husband Feb. 25, the day he arrived in Kuwait. His last words were perhaps a hint that he would not return.

"This is definitely the last time I can talk to you," he told Casey.

They repeatedly told each other "I love you" until the 30-minute phone card beeped, a hint that they were out of minutes.

Free Press staff writer Rodney Thrash contributed to this report.