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GREEN CARD MARINES

Death Of A Dream

A Guatemalan orphan -- artistic, poetic -- sought a better life in the U.S. Many cared about him, but they couldn't fill the hole inside.

May 25, 2003|MARK ARAX; RICH CONNELL;DANIEL HERNANDEZ; ROBERT J. LOPEZ;PATRICK J. McDONNELL.

The war in Iraq drew attention to the growing number of noncitizens in the U.S. military -- about 37,000. Ten were killed during the war, seven from California. Most were Latino. This is the first of four portraits of Green Card Marines who gave their lives.

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After all he had seen, Jose Antonio Gutierrez might have been forgiven for telling the lie.

When he was 3, his mother withered to 66 pounds from malnutrition; two years later she died in a Guatemala tuberculosis ward. Jose was left to his father, who forced his son to beg for change and scavenge for food, then died a drunkard's death with the 8-year-old boy by his side.

Jose eventually made the 2,000-mile trek from Guatemala to Los Angeles, promising the sister he left behind that he would become an architect and design great buildings.

So, on a spring morning six years ago, the baby-faced kid with big ears sat at a shelter for the homeless in Hollywood and, through his rotten teeth, told a daring lie.

Social worker Rafael Angulo asked Jose how old he was. Jose said 16.

He had plenty of reason to hide the truth. Adults who cross the border illegally are subject to deportation. A juvenile with no family could probably stay.

The social worker studied the smooth young face and wanted to believe the boy. Two weeks later, Jose was placed in his first foster home.

The boy, it turned out, was 22.

The lie changed everything. It got him a green card, and the green card got him into the Marines, and the Marines took him to the Iraqi port of Umm al Qasr, where he was killed the afternoon of March 21, one of the first U.S. servicemen to die in the war.

The life and death of Jose Gutierrez is the story of an improbable American hero, a Guatemalan orphan slain fighting for his adopted country. It is a story that has been told around the world.

But now the government says that Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez ran out of a building that had been secured by Marines and was shot by mistake -- apparently killed by friendly fire.

Jose was assumed to be an enemy soldier when he was shot, his commanding officer wrote in a letter of condolence to his sister, Engracia. "Obviously, this was a tragic accident."

Jose had always wanted to be famous, Engracia says, a candle illuminating a gallery of his photos in her tiny bedroom in Guatemala. In one, he's smiling like a tourist in San Diego. In another, he stares out with no smile in his Marine jacket and cap.

He was a boy who inspired others to help him and, as he moved from the streets to an orphanage to jail to foster homes, Jose kept looking for a place that would give him order. He found that place in the Marines. His sister said he had enlisted out of gratitude to the United States for having given him a second chance.

But as war loomed, he was haunted by second thoughts.

"I understand everything we've been taught," Jose wrote to a friend. "The only thing I do not understand is, why wars? Why do we fight against other human beings if, at the end of our time -- friends or enemies -- we all end up in the same place, buried in cemeteries and many times forgotten."

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Tragedy Upon Tragedy

When he was a young child, his days would begin with the smoke of the kindling wood, his mother hovering over the pungent fire with a bowl of fresh corn dough beside her. She would dip her hand into the mound of masa and place a thin round cake on the clay pan that sizzled above the fire. Then, one by one, she would set the hot tortillas in a basket and head on foot to the central market, making about $2 a day.

Jose's mother, Maria Ernestina Gutierrez, and his father, Jose Fidelino Sirin, settled in the sugar town of Escuintla. Their first child was a daughter named Engracia. Jose Antonio was born five years later, on Dec. 1, 1974. Maria had him baptized at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a few paces from the market where she hawked her tortillas.

The boy grew up with the sound of his mother's cough, a rattling deep in her lungs for which the family blamed the smoke of the tortilla fires and cold water baths. Her condition, Engracia recalls, seemed to worsen with the stress of a third child, a girl named Maria Ismelda.

Jose's mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the only public sanitarium that could treat her was in Guatemala City. The family uprooted itself and moved to the northern fringes of the capital, to a neighborhood of hovels that clung to the side of a gorge above a rancid river known as Las Vacas. From their one-room adobe shack, little Jose and his older sister could see the black vultures swooping down into the water to dine on the refuse from slaughterhouses upstream.

Their father was often sullen and drunk and would leave the house for hours to drink. With their mother hospitalized, the children grew up fending for themselves. Their father would send Jose out to beg, recalls Consuelo Ruiz Ayala, who lived nearby.

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