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U.S. MILITARY DEATHS IN IRAQ

A Life Back in Flower When It Was Lost

Converting to Islam and rejoining the military helped a California National Guardsman set himself right -- shortly before his death in Iraq.

October 26, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

By the time 30-year-old Paul Neubauer stumbled into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1995, he had lost his job, his family, his car and his home.

"Life was falling through my sleeves," he recalled in a speech nine sober years later, in 2004. "I had always been the one who kicked the guy off the corner who was waving his arms and talking to God. And suddenly I was the guy doing that."

But with the help of his sponsors and friends in a large Los Angeles AA group, Neubauer righted himself. He convinced National Guard recruiters that his drinking days were over and despite a body wrecked by abuse, struggled through the rigorous training regimen to become a soldier.

"He came back from that first training a changed man," his friend Frank Jones said.

The Guard gave Neubauer the discipline he craved. AA gave him support. Last month, the war in Iraq took his life.

When a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle during a patrol in Baghdad, Neubauer became the 1,917th member of the armed forces -- and the 17th California guardsman -- to die in the prosecution of the war since the U.S. invaded on March 20, 2003. It is the first conflict since Korea to have taken such a substantial toll on the Guard and Reserves.

Neubauer, who was 40 when he died, did not fit the image of the wholesome citizen-soldier. He had always struggled as a civilian and never did the stereotypical things parents are supposed to do, such as coaching a Little League baseball team or joining the PTA. On more than one occasion, a daughter from his troubled first marriage had been taken away from him by children's welfare authorities.

Yet his story in the end, from his early days of recovery in 1995 to his death 10 years later, is one of personal triumph and achievement.

His tale includes more than one surprising turn, the most recent of which was on the religious front. By January of this year, when he was sent to Iraq as a Humvee turret gunner with the Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Regiment, the blond, blue-eyed staff sergeant had converted to Islam, a fact he seldom mentioned to his fellow soldiers.

More than 400 people attended his memorial service in Santa Monica this month, including many from his AA group. An Iranian cleric read from the Koran.

Born in Grand Junction, Colo., where he was adopted by husband and wife schoolteachers and raised in the Lutheran Church, Neubauer started drinking heavily in the seventh grade. Right after high school he joined the Navy. His superiors quickly marked him as a problem drinker.

Having left the Navy after several reprimands and two reductions in rank, Neubauer spent a few years drinking in sailors' bars in San Diego and Long Beach. When he worked, it was part-time as a security guard. Despite problems that had him howling on a Long Beach street corner, he had a license to carry a concealed weapon.

In his own words, he had become a menace. "I was nuts. I was crazy. I was ready to shoot at a moment's notice," he recalled in a July 3, 2004, talk at an AA meeting. The talk, or "pitch" as it is called in AA, was recorded so others could turn to it for inspiration.

After several false starts, Neubauer finally found a home and a tough ex-Marine and former Inglewood cop who became his sponsor in the Westside AA group. His life began to flower.

An enduring curiosity about foreign cultures and religions reawakened. Although he had never been a good student, he perfected Spanish and studied Chinese and Greek. He remarried.

He made unlikely friends, including Ashok Desai, a Beverly Hills property manager and Indian-born Brahmin, with whom he studied world religions late into the night.

"We stayed up discussing Hindu Vedic literature and the Koran," Desai said.

Partly through these exchanges with Desai, Neubauer became attracted to Islam, which preaches an abstemious life and forbids the consumption of alcohol.

After becoming sober, Neubauer told friends that he wanted to try again with the military to make up for his earlier botched career. Many had their doubts.

"I would have bet against him," said Oscar Arambula, 40, a movie-set carpenter and former soldier.

Neubauer's honorable discharge from the Navy had stipulated that he not be allowed to reenlist. But through the intervention of friends and a military chaplain who took up his case, he was accepted into the California National Guard as a buck private at the age of 32.

He survived basic training and quickly proved himself, winning promotions and, finally, a full-time job with the Guard in a drug enforcement team on the Mexican border.

When his unit received the order to head for Iraq in the summer of 2004, friends worried about him.

But for Neubauer, the dangerous assignment was one of the greatest gifts of his life. His favorite biblical story was that of the prodigal son. To him, the Iraq mission was proof that he had been reaccepted.

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