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Pride and Grief for Fallen Marines

Three Southlanders killed in Iraq are recalled by families and friends for their dedication to the corps.

March 26, 2003|Lee Romney and Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writers

Of the U.S. Marines who died fighting on March 23 near Nasiriyah, Iraq, three -- Jorge Gonzalez, Michael Bitz and Randal Kent Rosacker -- were from California. Two were fathers, a third was a son who followed his father into the military. One was 31, settling into adulthood; the other two were barely 20. They left grieving parents, brothers, sisters and children -- including a set of twins and a 3-week-old baby who had never met their fathers.

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It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but it did. Before the Marine Corps could deliver the solemn news, TV images beamed via satellite into the Rialto home of the Gonzalez family showed the body of their uniformed son being picked up by an Iraqi soldier and held up like a trophy to the camera.

"They were showing video of soldiers who died in combat," Rosa Gonzalez said, recounting the horror as she and her husband, Mario, watched the grim images from Arab network Al Jazeera being broadcast on Spanish-language Telemundo on Sunday morning.

"I said, poor muchachos, poor boys," Rosa Gonzalez said, looking at the tangle of bodies kept inside a building. Then an Iraqi soldier leaned down, grabbed one of the dead, turned him over and held him up for the camera.

The legs of Mario Gonzalez suddenly buckled, as he collapsed to the floor in shock.

"I saw his face," Rosa Gonzalez said. "I said to myself, 'Calm yourself, Rosa, it can't be.' "

Then the image vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The couple spent much of the rest of Sunday trying to reassure each other that they must be mistaken. It couldn't be their 20-year-old son, Jorge, their second-oldest, the father of an infant son.

"Our eyes saw it, but our hearts were hoping it wasn't so," Mario Gonzalez said. "Maybe it's not him," he told his wife over and over. "A lot of them look alike."

The couple did not share what they had seen with their five other children. And then, Monday morning, Marine officials appeared at the doorstep, confirming their worst fears.

"When they came to inform me," Rosa Gonzalez recounted, "I said, 'I already know.' "

The Defense Department on Tuesday released the name of Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

KMEX-TV was the first to interview the Gonzalez family, and after the interview aired, a swarm of camera crews, radio and print journalists congregated at the blue stucco ranch house in Rialto, where family and friends gathered to mourn the young man who hoped to retire from the Marines in about a year and apply to become a policeman.

He told his family and friends he wanted to work in the toughest neighborhoods, to help clean them up.

Gonzalez, an avid soccer player, briefly attended Temple City High School and later graduated from El Monte High School, his family said, and immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was married to Jazty, 25, who gave birth to a son, Alonso, on March 3 at Camp Lejeune. The corporal had shipped out weeks earlier.

His last visit home was at Christmas. His sister Nancy, 15, said she was never, never affectionate with her brother, but had a bad feeling the day he was preparing to head East. "That day, I just hugged him and kissed him. I knew I had to do that."

Rosa Gonzalez did not want her son to join the armed forces, but he assured her: "Don't worry, mom. If I die a Marine, I'll die honored."

Proud of her son for fighting for his country, Rosa Gonzalez was angry at Telemundo for broadcasting the pictures of his body. "Television needs to take precautions," she said, "I don't want other mothers to go through this."

For their part, Telemundo news executives said they regretted broadcasting the video of dead American soldiers made by Iraqi TV. "Somebody made a mistake, and we're sorry," said Joe Peyronnin, Telemundo's executive vice president for news.

On Tuesday, after learning officially of her son's death, Rosa Gonzalez received a letter from him. Dated March 10, it is one last keepsake from the son she already knew was gone.

"If you can wait just a little, I'll see you in the summer," Jorge Gonzalez wrote, "if God wants it."

Sgt. Michael Bitz, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, 2nd Marine Division

In the last year, it looked as if Michael Bitz was on a track other men would envy.

He had renewed his vows with his wife, Janina, and the couple were expecting twins. A sergeant in the Marines, he loved his job so much that he reenlisted last fall. At 31, he was entering his prime -- a reckless, rootless kid turned responsible father of four and career military man.

On Tuesday, his mother reminisced about him as a single candle burned on the dining-room table in her Ventura home. In their last telephone call, he told his mom how much he loved her. In his last letter to her, he said he was her warrior.

Donna Bellman's home was awash in television crews and sympathetic neighbors. A wreath of red, white and blue ribbon hung on the door.

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