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GREEN CARD MARINES

Eager To Enlist

May 27, 2003|Mark Arax, Rich Connell, Jennifer Mena and Anna Gorman. | This story was reported and written by Times staff writers Mark Arax, Rich Connell, Jennifer Mena and Anna Gorman.

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 third of four portraits of Green Card Marines who gave their lives.

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The Marine recruiter had heard all about the kid from Escondido, the one whose senior class project was a tribute to the Corps.

In his white cap and blue uniform, Staff Sgt. Pedro Hernandez was leery as he stepped up to the front gates of Valley High School on that spring day in 2001. Kids were always talking about signing up, most of them in boast or jest.

He got only a few steps onto campus when he met Jesus Suarez del Solar. Jesus was good-looking, a small, trim teenager dressed in stylish urban clothes and jewelry. "One of those snappy-dresser kind of guys who maybe talk the talk but don't walk the walk," Hernandez thought.

Jesus launched into his own sales pitch. Marines were the best. They had the sharpest uniforms.

All I want to be is an infantry sniper, he told Hernandez. Not many recruits say that.

They headed back to Hernandez's office and talked for hours. Like so many other young men looking to sign up, Jesus was an immigrant, a green card holder from Mexico. Unlike many, his English was good and he had no trouble passing the preliminary qualifying test that day.

He couldn't grab enough recruitment posters. The sniper Marine. The Marine coming down the rope. The Marine in dress blues. And he couldn't wait to get started. By the time Jesus left, Hernandez had a measure of the kid from Valley High.

"He was an image kind of guy," Hernandez said. "He wanted to be the best at something ... wanted to feel important. He didn't just want to be one of the guys. He wanted to be one of the top guys who stood out and everyone looked up to."

In the hours before the invasion of Iraq, Jesus must have felt he had reached his goal. An ABC-TV crew filmed him climbing to a sniper's nest near the Iraqi border, looking for enemy soldiers who had been spotted planting land mines. He wore a camouflage bandanna pulled tight over his head as he set his rifle on a tripod and peered into the desert.

Was he nervous, being so exposed to Iraqi guns? the TV reporter asked.

"No. Not at all," Jesus said calmly, as he turned to the camera.

A week later, as his armored reconnaissance unit pushed toward Baghdad, he was killed. It was either a bullet or a bomb. There are conflicting reports.

Jesus grew up a Tijuana boy who swore allegiance to the United States as a young man. He came from a family that moved between two countries and two cultures. Theirs was an ambivalence familiar to many Mexican immigrants, whose lives and loyalties straddle the land of their ancestors and the land of their aspirations.

In Jesus' case, the tug of war began when he was a tot and continued beyond his death. Weeks after he was killed, his family was debating whether to accept posthumous U.S. citizenship for him. His wife, a mother and widow at 20, thought he would have wanted it. His father insisted Jesus was proud to be Mexican and nothing more.

In the living room of the family's condominium, Fernando Suarez del Solar watched the ABC videotape for the 20th time. It had been broadcast after his son's death.

All through the boy's life, Fernando said, he had a single vision for his son: that he become a Mexican politician, not an American soldier. Fernando had the same dream for himself once, but moved north across the border for his children.

Since his son's death, Fernando has held news conferences and given many interviews. He has criticized the war, questioning whether his son died for "Bush's oil." He helped start a Web site and make T-shirts that promote his son as the Guerrero Azteca -- the Aztec Warrior. The Web site features a picture of Jesus and an Aztec god wielding a spear.

Fernando, a small, neatly dressed man, balding, with an ink-black mustache, is now thinking about running for office in Escondido, where Jesus has become a local hero. Relatives and friends complain privately that Fernando's high profile seems disrespectful.

"This is my way to cry for my son," the father said in his own defense.

In life, Jesus took away his father's political hopes. In death, his father said, he is giving them back.

"I'm at a point -- and how sad it is because of my son dying -- that a lot of people know me. I have an opportunity now to be a voice" for people who can't or don't speak for themselves, he said. "I feel Jesus is putting his hand on my back and he is pushing me."

Life of Privilege

The story of Jesus Suarez del Solar begins with the story of his father.

Fernando is the son of a career politician, and his life was anchored in the privileged class of Mexico City. His upbringing included a cook, a maid and a chauffeur.

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