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Marine Killed in Iraq Loved the Corps, Serving His Country

Derek Gardner had one of the most dangerous jobs, but was glad to be there.

September 15, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Trained as a truck driver, Marine Lance Cpl. Derek Gardner was eager to be deployed to Iraq when his battalion left Camp Pendleton in February.

After arriving in the volatile Sunni Triangle, he was assigned to one of the most dangerous jobs possible: driving trucks loaded with Marines, ammunition and explosives through streets and highways vulnerable to attack by insurgents.

"I'm ready to fight for my country," Gardner told The Times in April in a voice brimming in confidence.

In August, after months of dodging terrorist attacks, he turned 20 and now was looking forward to returning home with his battalion in October and marrying his fiancee.

But last week, a suicide car loaded with explosives swerved into Gardner's 7-ton truck on a busy highway outside the insurgent stronghold of Fallouja. Gardner and six other Marines were killed instantly in a thunderous explosion.

Tuesday, in a memorial service in San Clemente that mixed joy and sorrow, Gardner was remembered as a young man who loved being in the Marine Corps and brought joy and pride to his family.

"I love you, Bud," Ken Gardner said tearfully as he turned toward his son's flag-draped casket. "You'll always be my Bud."

An overflow crowd of several hundred people came to the Lesneski Mortuary to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a young man who enlisted just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and was eager to go to Iraq.

Vickey De Lacour told the gathering that her son was following a family tradition: His father served with the Marines in Vietnam and his grandfather was in the Army and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for bravery in the Korean War.

Gardner kept a quote taped to his bedroom door from Marine Gen. Charles Krulak: "Excellence doesn't just happen. It must be forged, tested and used."

During the gut-busting part of boot camp called the Crucible, he carried a Vietnam veteran patch given to him by his father.

"Derek was a Marine," his mother said. "It was what he wanted to do with his life."

At a memorial service last week at the 1st Marine Division headquarters in Iraq, Gardner's commanding officer said his months in a war zone had been a maturing and exhausting experience for Gardner, who had been assigned to the division's headquarters battalion.

"He fit my picture of the typical tough young Marine," Capt. Terence M. Connelly, commanding officer of Truck Company, told a gathering in a makeshift chapel in what was once one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.

"He was dirty, he was tired.... ," Connelly said. "But I could tell he loved his buddies, he loved being a truck driver, and he loved being a Marine."

Gardner, a graduate of Laguna Hills High School, played football and enjoyed deep-sea fishing with his father. He liked Knott's Berry Farm, rap music, professional wrestling and baseball; a Dodgers cap was placed on his casket.

Gardner planned to marry April Ornelas when he returned from Iraq. They met a year ago at a mall and he proposed to her Christmas Eve.

"I knew from that day on, I knew I had found my soul mate, my one true love," Ornelas told the service here.

De Lacour, in an interview before the service, said she opposes the war in Iraq and will soon speak out against it.

But she said those comments will have to wait; her focus Tuesday was on the loss of her son.

"He was just doing his job, he was just doing his job," De Lacour said as her voice trailed off.

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