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Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jerry L. Bonifacio Jr., 28, of Vacaville; Killed in Suicide Car Bomb Attack

October 16, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

VACAVILLE, Calif. — Carol Dummer recalls him as a quiet teenager who would come in to wash dishes and do other chores around his grandparents' homey corner cafe.

"He was always as helpful as anyone could be," said Dummer, recalling Staff Sgt. Jerry Lee Bonifacio Jr., the 28-year-old California National Guardsman and civilian refinery worker killed in an Oct. 10 suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad.

A waitress at the Downtown Cafe for 24 years, Dummer smiled at the memory of the grown-up Bonifacio arriving at the cafe earlier this year on military leave with his fiancee, Wal-Mart employee Michelle Baptiste. The couple were planning to marry next year.

"You could tell that they were madly in love," Dummer said.

Bonifacio came from a large family here in this agricultural center and blue-collar community off Interstate 80, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento. With a population of 88,000, Vacaville was also hometown to Casey Sheehan, the Army specialist whose mother, Cindy Sheehan, has become a national leader in the antiwar movement. Casey Sheehan, 24, was killed April 4, 2004, in a firefight outside Baghdad.

Partly because of the attention paid to the Sheehan case, Bonifacio family members declined requests for interviews, referring reporters to family friends and military officials.

The hometown newspaper, the Vacaville Reporter, portrayed Bonifacio as popular and easygoing. Bonifacio, the newspaper reported, loved heavy metal music and, in addition to having the same first name, bore a striking resemblance to Jerry Mathers, the actor who played Beaver in the 1950s television sitcom "Leave It to Beaver." Many of his friends, in fact, called him "Beaver."

Before joining the National Guard in 2001, Bonifacio served four years of active duty with the 101st Airborne Division, based at Ft. Campbell, Ky.

In the National Guard, Bonifacio was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment in the Bay Area city of Dublin. Before his deployment to Iraq earlier this year, he served in Kuwait and in the Sinai Peninsula. Posthumously promoted to staff sergeant, Bonifacio was a squad leader, mortar man and dismount team leader.

A military news release issued Thursday described him as a "quiet professional who always put his soldiers first in every situation."

Bonifacio was the 18th California National Guard soldier to die in Iraq since the beginning of the war.

With seven combat deaths, including four in the last month, the 1st Battalion, 184th Regiment has recorded more soldiers killed in action than any other California unit in Iraq.

At the time of his death, Bonifacio was manning one of the checkpoint gates to the Green Zone, the international area housing the U.S. Embassy and military headquarters in central Baghdad, when a vehicle attempting to follow a U.S. convoy into the compound exploded after Bonifacio ordered it to stop.

U.S. officials characterized the car bomb attack as part of a campaign to intimidate Iraqis before the national vote Saturday on the new constitution.

Also killed in the blast was an Iraqi translator whom Bonifacio called "Conan," after the fantasy character.

According to friends, Bonifacio's interests included a passion for superhero comic books.

Nathan Padilla, owner of Gamewarden Comics shop in Vacaville, said Bonifacio would spend hours in his shop when he was home on leave.

"He's been a customer here for years -- really into comics like 'Conan,' 'Tomb Raider,' 'X-Men,' 'New Avengers,' 'Wolverine' and 'Witchblade,' " Padilla said.

On one recent visit, the combat veteran and the shop owner played a superhero board game, Heroclix, for hours until it was time to close up.

Bonifacio is survived by his parents, Jerry and Anna Bonifacio; younger siblings Esther and John Bonifacio; grandparents Liz and Hope Steele; and many aunts, uncles and cousins, most of whom live in the Vacaville area.

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