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MILITARY DEATHS

Marine Pfc. Jason Franco, 18, Corona; dies of gunshot wound to the head in a `nonhostile incident' in Iraq

December 03, 2006|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Jason Franco was a young man in a hurry, and he didn't wait long to join the Marine Corps. He enlisted in March, little more than two months after turning 18.

And when Franco, a Corona resident, learned this fall that his unit would head to Iraq early next year, he again was eager to get started. He volunteered to ship out early and was sent to Iraq within a few days.

But tragedy also struck quickly for the private first class. On Oct. 31, less than four weeks after arriving in Iraq and two months shy of his 19th birthday, Franco died of a gunshot wound to the head in what the Department of Defense termed a "nonhostile incident."

Franco's death, which occurred in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad, remains under investigation. He was assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 11, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in Miramar, Calif.

His family said Franco long dreamed of serving in the Marines. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and his father, Genaro Franco, who spent 20 years in the military, 13 of them as a Marine. "He always looked up to his Dad," said his mother, Guadalupe.

Franco was part of a close-knit extended family. He lived in Corona with his parents, a younger brother and sister and two grandparents.

After finishing boot camp and his occupational training in administrative skills, he was stationed in Miramar and came home to Corona on weekends.

Brian Linares, a cousin who developed a close bond with Franco while living with the Franco family for two years, said that when the two teenagers would reunite after spending time apart, "Me and Jason wouldn't handshake, we'd hug."

Franco spoke Spanish with his Mexican-born grandparents. He loved his mother's cooking, particularly her enchiladas and lasagna. While at boot camp and away from those favorite dishes, the powerfully built Franco, who was 5 feet 11, lost nearly 60 pounds and slimmed down to 140.

"We said, 'Son, they don't feed you!' " his mother recalled. "He was like, 'Mom, we run like there's no tomorrow.' "

"He looked great in his uniform. And he took so much pride," his mother said.

In high school, Franco liked math, but his grades dropped off when his father was diagnosed with cancer, his mother said. Still, when Franco found out as a junior that he might not graduate with his class, he switched to an alternative school in Corona, Buena Vista High, to catch up.

As it turned out, Franco loaded up on coursework and took an independent study program in the spring, enabling him to finish school several weeks ahead of schedule while also holding down a fast-food job.

Dennis Brandt, a Buena Vista teacher who had Franco in a language arts class and supervised his independent study program, described his former student as a laid-back teenager who in class was capable and attentive but also very quiet.

"He just wanted to go about his business," Brandt said. "He was a great conversationalist, but you had to approach him."

Franco had many talents. He taught himself to play the guitar, keyboard and drums, as well as to sketch graffiti-style drawings.

And he liked to keep busy, his cousin said. "He always had to be doing something, whether it was cleaning up around the house, washing the dishes or working out," Linares said.

Franco also liked video games and cars, and bought a used black C320 Mercedes-Benz for $18,000 just a few days before heading to Iraq. His parents said he wanted to go to Iraq quickly to earn extra pay for combat duty to help pay off his car loan.

"We don't drive it, but it's in the garage," his mother said, explaining that she and her husband don't have the heart to sell a car that their son loved. They last talked to their son the day before he died. "He was so happy. He said, 'Mom, tell everybody not to worry. I'm OK, and I'll be back in May,' " she said.

In addition to his parents and grandparents, Franco is survived by his brother, Kristian, 14; his sister, Kuuielani, 12; and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.

stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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