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WAR WITH IRAQ

Family Says Marine Was Leader to End

Therrel Childers, 30, dies while with his infantry platoon. Camp Pendleton rifleman Jose Gutierrez, 22, is also killed by hostile fire.

March 23, 2003|Tom Gorman and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

One was a gung-ho outdoorsman known for courting adventure in a military career that spanned more than a decade.

The other, a young man whose roots spread from Guatemala to Los Angeles, enlisted less than a year ago.

The Pentagon said Saturday that these two Marines -- Therrel S. Childers, 30, and Jose Gutierrez, 22 -- were the first U.S. servicemen to fall to hostile fire in Iraq.

Second lieutenant Childers was fatally shot Friday while leading his infantry platoon in securing an oil field pumping station in southern Iraq. Later the same day, Lance Cpl. Gutierrez, an infantry rifleman, was killed in fighting near the southern port of Umm al Qasr. Both were with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

In the hours after his death, loved ones shared their memories of Childers. Far less is known about Gutierrez.

Childers, who went by Shane, thrived on outdoor adventure, on physical fitness and pushing himself to the limit -- traits that helped make his love for the Marine Corps life seem almost preordained.

"He didn't want to sit behind a desk. He was born to lead," said his younger brother, Sam Childers. "He wasn't afraid of dealing with combat."

Childers grew up near Gulfport, Miss., and joined the Marines after high school. His family said it was no surprise that he, and not one of his troops, would have been shot in battle because he would have been at the front of the action.

"I would have been proud to serve under him," said his brother-in-law, Richard Brown, an Army sergeant who is preparing to ship out to duty in the Middle East within a week.

"Shane exemplified the Marines, gung-ho hoooah. The Marines represented honor, trust, physical fitness, leadership, the highest qualities a human being could have, and he wanted those qualities for himself. That's why he joined the Marines."

Brown said Childers, who arrived in Kuwait with his unit in February, was aware of the dangers of combat. "I'm sure he had a sense that it could get nasty," Brown said.

"He knew what he was getting himself into," Brown said. "He died doing exactly what he wanted to do, in the exact fashion he would have wanted -- a Marine officer leading his troops by being in front of them."

A Role Model

Childers pushed himself. He hiked, climbed mountains and competed in triathlons -- ever in competition with himself, it seemed. "He always said he was the second-best and the first-best would be him -- tomorrow," Brown said.

Even as an active-duty Marine, Childers graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., in 2001 as part of a special program -- the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program -- for Marines seeking to get a college degree. He majored in French and made the dean's list. The school's president, retired Marine Maj. Gen. John S. Grinalds, said Childers helped the younger undergraduates.

"Therrel Childers served as an excellent role model for our cadets," Grinalds said.

A former neighbor in Capistrano Beach, not far from Camp Pendleton, said Childers moved out a few months ago and was preparing for a transfer to Guam when he was sent to the Persian Gulf.

Childers last saw his parents, Joseph and Judy Childers, at their home in Powell, Wyo., at Christmas. In subsequent e-mails to the family, he betrayed no anxieties he may have had about impending combat.

"We got the once-in-a-while message," said Brown, who is married to Childers' sister, Sandy, 31. "He'd say, 'I'm OK, just kicking back, waiting for everything to get started. I can't tell you what I'm doing, but everything's good. Give my love to everyone.' "

Childers' parents received the news Friday night in Waco, Texas, where they were visiting their daughter, Sandy, and Brown before he heads to the Persian Gulf region.

Judy Childers, a military wife and mother, had steeled herself for the worst.

"When she heard the news that a Marine had died in combat, for some reason I think she sensed it was Shane," said Brown, who sat at the table when a military chaplain and other Marines came by to deliver the news to the parents.

Joseph "just bowed his head for a minute and wiped his hand over his face," Brown said, and muttered a resigned "OK."

The Childers family was steeped in the military life. Joseph Childers had spent 22 years in the Seabees before he and Judy retired a few years ago to Powell, Wyo., about 75 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. Sam, 29, spent 8 1/2 years in the Navy.

The couple were returning to Wyoming on Saturday, where neighbors had heard the news.

"He was one of the nicest men I'd ever met," Deb Van Valin said. "So polite, so kind, always 'Yes ma'am, yes sir.' I laughed and told him it was OK for him to call me Deb.

"He was a very professional Marine, but he never talked about it unless you were to ask him," she said. "And being a Marine mom myself, there are things -- combat -- you don't want to ask about."

No Anger

Van Valin spoke Saturday by telephone with Judy Childers, who expressed no anger at the loss of her son.

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