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Park Service Honors a Fallen Marine's Family

Vanessa Arroyave, 7, takes the oath as Channel Islands' first junior ranger, an achievement her father had hoped for.

August 05, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

For Jimmy Arroyave, the timing was critical.

Crazy about the national park system, he wanted his young daughter Vanessa to sign on as the first junior ranger at Channel Islands National Park, and the sooner the better.

So in a packed auditorium Wednesday, she raised her right hand and took the junior ranger oath in her clear, achingly earnest, 7-year-old voice, pledging to "help protect these islands, their plants, their animals, and their cultural heritage...."

By all accounts, her dad would have been proud. The 30-year-old Marine died in Iraq in April. At home in Oceanside, he left behind Vanessa and her 3-year-old sister Natalia, and their mother Rachelle Arroyave, now six months' pregnant.

They and Rachelle Arroyave's parents all were on hand for the big event at the Channel Islands National Park headquarters in Ventura. Vanessa clutched a teddy bear clad in desert khaki material cut from one of her father's old uniforms. A few park service staff members wiped away tears.

The last time they had seen the family, Jimmy Arroyave was with them. He had helped Vanessa fill out the workbook required of junior rangers. He peered with her at the sea stars and anemones in the headquarters' artificial tide pool. On a boat ride to Anacapa Island, they watched the dolphins leap.

Two days later, Arroyave left Camp Pendleton for his second deployment in the Middle East. The next month he was riding in a convoy near Ramadi when his vehicle flipped, killing him.

On Wednesday, his widow was unprepared for the poignant reception that the park service gave her and her family at an annual employee meeting. Vanessa was awarded an inscribed wooden arrowhead, a park service token for staff members moving on to their next posting. And Rachelle Arroyave was given a baby quilt made of squares painted and embroidered by park employees, scenes of dolphins and island foxes and the old lighthouse on Anacapa.

The quilts are a kind of Channel Islands tradition for employees who become parents, park Supt. Russell Galipeau told the Arroyaves.

Galipeau knelt beside Vanessa and told her that she was now part of the park family.

"I want you to bring your mother and your sister and the baby back to Channel Islands," he told her. "Bring them back home."

Vanessa said she would.

An hour later she and her sister were on a boat bound for Anacapa Island, whose wave-whipped arch and craggy coves will always remind them of their dad.

Jimmy Arroyave was born in Colombia but grew up in Woodland, outside Sacramento. A Marine since 1993, he had hoped to retire in 10 years and then work for the park service.

"Jimmy loved the national parks," said Rachelle, 27, a psychology student. "He had a national parks 'passport' that he kept at home in the safe so he wouldn't lose it."

On their honeymoon, she said, the couple went to Washington, D.C., where Jimmy got his passport stamped at 13 parks and monuments.

The Arroyaves were planning to tour Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in May. By then, Jimmy was supposed to have become a Marine recruiter stateside. He was ordered, instead, to Iraq, where he was to help repair water systems.

Two Jimmy Arroyave memorial funds have been established. One benefits the National Parks Fund through the Marin Community Foundation, 5 Hamilton Landing, Novato 94949. The other aids his family through the River City Bank, 199 Main St., Woodland 95695.

For Rachelle Arroyave, the kindness of strangers is a comfort.

"It's nice to know that so many people care," she said.

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