Lance Cpl. Manuel A. Ceniceros didn't join the U.S. Marine Corps to work behind a desk. He was an infantryman, and he wore the nickname for that job -- "grunt" -- as a badge of honor.
"He never saw that as an insult," said his wife, Elizabeth Ceniceros, 23. "He said it's the best thing you can be in the military. He'd say, 'We're not there to push papers. We're actually there to help and fight.' "
The rifleman served in Operation Enduring Freedom after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was fighting in Iraq's Al Anbar province June 26 when he was killed in hostile action. Ceniceros, 23, had been assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1 Headquarters Company, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
The longtime Santa Ana resident joined the military in 2000 to learn to be a diesel mechanic. But early on a sergeant noticed his aptitude on the firing range, said his uncle, Alfredo "Frankie" Gallegos.
An only child, Ceniceros lost his father when he was in high school. For Ceniceros, joining the Marine Corps was the beginning of a love affair with his second family.
A painfully shy teenager who hadn't distinguished himself in school, Ceniceros gained confidence and a sense of identity in the Marines. His fellow Marines were his brothers. His dog, a Labrador mix named Tank, was usually wearing some kind of Marine Corps bandanna.
Ceniceros wasn't political, but he was patriotic, identifying with comic book figure Captain America. A doll of the masked superhero was among his favorite possessions.
"My husband, for most of his life, had never felt like he owned anything or stood for anything, because he was so quiet and so shy," his wife said. "When he was in high school, he wasn't known for anything at all. But when he became a Marine, it was like he owned that."
After marrying in December 2002, however, Ceniceros started thinking about returning to civilian life and starting a family. Money was tight for the young couple, who had exchanged vows at the Los Angeles County Hall of Records.
For the first few months of married life, Ceniceros continued living at Camp Pendleton. Eventually he moved in with his wife at her grandmother's house in East Los Angeles and commuted to the base.
When he left for Iraq in February, his wife said, Ceniceros hoped to help liberate an oppressed people. But he also thought the combat pay might help fund a starter home, a formal church wedding and fertility treatments for Elizabeth, who had undergone surgery to remove an ovarian tumor in April 2003.
Looking toward the future, Ceniceros saw himself settled in his hometown, surrounded by lots of kids and perhaps working for the Santa Ana Police Department, Elizabeth said.
Ceniceros' funeral will be held Tuesday at Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church in East Los Angeles, where he had planned to have his big wedding. Visitation is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. Monday at Guerra Gutierrez Mortuary, 5800 E. Beverly Blvd., in Los Angeles.
Ceniceros is also survived by his mother, Angela De La Cruz; his aunt, Stella Gallegos; and cousins Alfred Gallegos Jr., Victor D. Gallegos, Daniel R. Gallegos and Freddy Gallegos.