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Navy Hospitalman Geovani Padilla, 20, South Gate; Among 4 Killed by Roadside Bomb

April 23, 2006|Matt Lait | Times Staff Writer

As a teenager, Geovani Padilla Aleman told his friends that he wanted to be a surgeon. So it was no surprise that when he enlisted in the Navy, he became a corpsman, treating the wounds of fallen comrades.

In his mission of saving lives, however, Padilla lost his own April 2 -- the victim of a roadside bomb in Iraq's Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

"He didn't go there to fight," said his 17-year-old cousin Salvador Padilla. "He went there to heal."

Salvador said his cousin loved adventure and joined the Navy because he saw it as a way to pay for college and explore the world.

Geovani Padilla, 20, was born in Guadalajara and grew up in Boyle Heights and South Gate, where he went to high school. He was an exceptional student, Salvador said, even though he never seemed to study that much. "He was just very intelligent," Salvador said. "He was my role model."

Like many young men, Padilla loved hanging out with his friends, playing video games and eating his mother's home-cooked meals. He also was an avid reader.

Padilla often gave books he had just finished to his friend Paul Canales. He chose books with philosophical or social themes, such as Albert Camus' "The Stranger." He also enjoyed funny, slightly dark, humorous books such as "The Zombie Survival Guide."

Padilla was a hospitalman assigned to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., U.S. Naval Service Comfort Detachment, and operationally assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2/28 Brigade Combat Team. While in Bethesda, he served as a pharmacy tech, filling and delivering prescriptions.

Hospitalman Robert Hellman said Padilla was a good friend who was "very honest and caring." He said Padilla could make even a monotonous task, such as shredding paper, enjoyable.

Hellman said he once went snowboarding with Padilla in Maryland during the winter, and Padilla went down the hardest trail. "He fell down the entire mountain," Hellman said. At the bottom, Padilla stood up and couldn't stop laughing. Then he wanted to do it again, Hellman said.

As a corpsman, Padilla was trained as a combat medic. He was sent to Iraq on March 1. His job was to provide the first medical assistance to a fallen soldier.

Cmdr. Eugene de Lara, head of Bethesda's pharmacy department, said a potluck dinner was held for Padilla and two other servicemen before their deployments.

He said Padilla didn't "whine or complain one bit" about going to Iraq.

"He stood up and said that he welcomed the opportunity, and saw it as his duty -- his responsibility," De Lara said. "This kid, all of 20 years old and in the Navy for just two years, demonstrated maturity and dedication to duty well beyond his years."

On April 2, Padilla was on patrol, riding alongside Marines in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad, when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee. Padilla and three Marines were mortally wounded.

Rear Adm. Adam M. Robinson, commander of the National Naval Medical Center, said Padilla "died as a hero, a corpsman doing exactly what he was trained to, serving with valor, integrity and purpose. He epitomized the Navy's motto: 'Not self, but country.' "

De Lara flew to Los Angeles to attend Padilla's funeral and give his mother cards and donations from fellow servicemen and women.

At a recent memorial ceremony in Maryland, De Lara recalled the service. He said he was nervous about approaching Padilla's mother, who was obviously distraught, and had rehearsed his words of condolence. At the end of the funeral, he walked up to her.

"No sooner had I identified myself and said I was from the pharmacy and knew her son, this woman, maybe 5 feet 5, wrapped her arm around my neck, giving me the biggest heartfelt hug and says into my ear, 'Thank you. Thank you so much. Every time Geovani called home he would talk about the pharmacy, he loved working there.'

"What probably lasted two seconds," De Lara said, "seemed like an eternity, taking every ounce of my soul to keep my composure.

"... I want everyone to know that this brave young man was a good sailor, hospital corpsman and pharmacy technician who was dedicated to his shipmates and his family."

Last week, after the funeral, a friend, Nairoby Alvarez, received a letter Padilla had written to her before he was killed. In it, he talked about life in Iraq, the heavy equipment he lugged around, the broken sewer line that flooded the streets, and having to go nine days without showering. He said he was saddened by the carnage he saw and was concerned about innocent children and others who got caught up in the violence.

He also quoted a passage to her: "We should not grieve when a hero dies. Instead we should be grateful that he lived and consider ourselves privileged to have walked along his footsteps if only for a short while."

Padilla is survived by his mother, father and 16-year-old sister.

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