When 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Antonio Mendoza of Santa Ana died June 3 at an Army hospital in Texas, his girlfriend had no idea that he had returned from Iraq.
Brenda Luna, 17, who began dating the Camp Pendleton Marine a year ago with her mother's permission, learned of his death from a close friend of Mendoza.
He died at Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston of wounds suffered Feb. 22 in an explosion in Ramadi, Iraq, west of Baghdad, the U.S. Department of Defense said recently. No further details were released.
"I was shocked," Luna said. "I didn't believe her. I told her, 'No it's not true.' " Luna would not identify the friend.
The high school student had not heard from Mendoza since a fellow Marine called her from Iraq to let her know that he had been injured. The Marine, a friend, told her "not to worry, it was nothing bad," Luna said. He gave no details of her boyfriend's injuries.
Mendoza was a field artillery cannoneer assigned to the 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. He joined the Marine Corps in 2002, and had received the Purple Heart, among other awards.
Mendoza's deployment to Iraq was his second, according to Luna. He left for a seven-month stint in September and planned to reenlist next year.
Mendoza was excited to be in Iraq, Luna said, adding that he was a fun-loving jokester who made friends easily and befriended many Iraqis. He loved to go to parties, and taught the Iraqis he met how to dance, she said.
Mendoza took the couple's relationship seriously, Luna said.
"He was not like any other guy that just meets you just for fun," she said. He was a romantic too. He often bought Luna flowers and teddy bears when he visited her on weekends from Camp Pendleton and wrote her love letters from Iraq.
"He used to tell my mom, 'I'm going to marry her,' " Luna said, recalling how he would window-shop for rings when they went to the mall.
Luna last spoke to Mendoza on Valentine's Day, about a week before he was injured. He told her that he wanted to come back to her, she said.
"I told him that he needed to take care and that I love him," Luna said. "He told me not to worry; he's going to take care."
Luna said she will cherish a "dog tag" that Mendoza gave her for luck that lists his name, rank and serial number in the Marines. It will stay in a keepsake box with pictures, letters and other presents he had given her.
Mendoza is survived by his mother and several siblings in Mexico, as well as an older sister in Riverside, Luna said.