As he came out for the final round of his interplatoon boxing match, Pvt. Paul Resce had victory in his grasp. Less experienced than his opponent on this hot, dusty August afternoon, the 18-year-old Marine recruit had nevertheless won the first round on sheer aggressiveness, and had battled to a draw in the second.
But within the first minute of Round 3, Pvt. Sean Schoonmaker pummeled Resce to a corner of the ring. Resce wobbled, then toppled backward between the ropes. With Resce momentarily helpless, Schoonmaker landed at least one more blow flush on Resce's brow.
Staff Sgt. Gary Gibson caught Resce before he could topple onto the hard ground of the downtown Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
"Thank you, sir," said the young recruit, adhering to Marine discipline even in the face of the pummeling.
"Are you going to take that from him?" Gibson asked.
"Sir, no, sir," Resce responded.
"Well, get back in there!" Gibson barked.
Unexpectedly, Resce asked: "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Gibson replied. "Get back in there and fight!"
Something was wrong, but only Resce knew it. He raised himself to a crouch as the blood pouring from a ruptured vein in his brain began to fill his skull. A moment later, Resce pitched forward on his face, unconscious. He died at Navy Hospital in Balboa Park after five days in a coma.
After an exhaustive investigation by the Marine Corps, Paul Resce's death last Aug. 7 was ruled accidental. The Marines reviewed their boxing program and halted it, saying the matches were not an effective training method for recruits.
But the 1,250-page report on the investigation, obtained by The Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act, suggests that Resce's death might have been prevented, either by the Marines or by Resce himself, a fearless young man driven to fight by his own competitiveness and the aggressive fire instilled by the Corps.
It raises the haunting question of whether Resce could have saved his own life by volunteering information about headaches that plagued him throughout boot camp and concussions he suffered as a high school football player. Those conditions, while not necessarily linked to his death, certainly would have kept him out of the boxing ring.
The investigation also suggests that if the Marines had followed their own regulations designed to prevent such injuries, Resce would not have been permitted in the ring Aug. 2, 1987. He probably would have been prevented from joining the Marines without a waiting period because of the concussions.
"I don't think anybody was culpable (in Resce's death)," said Maj. Gen. Donald Fulham, commander of the base and the man in charge of Marine recruitment throughout the Western United States. "If anybody were culpable, I guess you'd have to say it was Private Resce, and I really have a hard time saying he was culpable."
But Resce's parents, many of their friends in the small Illinois town of Romeoville and a Chicago attorney blame the Marines for negligence in his death. Prevented by federal law from filing a lawsuit against the Marines, Resce's parents are demanding that the military men they reluctantly entrusted with the care of their only son be punished for his death.
"Somebody has to stand for it," Bertha Resce said, weeping at her kitchen table on a gray, drizzly day two weeks ago. " . . . Pauli did not just die there because God wants him. I mean, I know God wants him. But there was somebody there that should have stopped that thing from happening, and they didn't."
"They took her baby," Rosie Britton said of her mother. "She gave (the Marines) her pride and joy and trusted them with him. And he never came home."
Romeoville, Ill., population 16,000, is one of those small Midwestern towns where everyone knows nearly everyone else, and word of an 18-year-old's untimely death in a faraway place is major news. Forty miles southwest of Chicago, Romeoville lies between the larger Chicago suburbs to its east and the beginnings of the Illinois heartland to its west.
Mexican immigrants Paul and Bertha Resce (pronounced Ree-see) moved to Romeoville in 1974, leaving behind the Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park, which they believed was taking a turn for the worse.
Romeoville offered security in its rows of one-story tract homes being carved into the flat farmland--protection from the drugs and gangs the Resces were sure their four children would encounter in Chicago's hostile neighborhoods. They sent Rosie, Sophie, Pauli and Anna to Catholic schools, where they hoped the four would find the caring and discipline to keep them off the streets.
But they couldn't protect Pauli, Bertha's favorite, from himself. From the time he was a weak, skinny youngster, he was rough and frighteningly fearless. He liked to jump from the roof of the house to the front lawn, which worried even his father, a sturdy ex-minor-league baseball player who was proud of his son's toughness.
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