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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Cpl. Micah S. Gifford, 27, Redding; killed in an explosion

December 31, 2006|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

"Don't pray that I come home soon," Micah S. Gifford wrote to friends on his MySpace.com page shortly after his Army unit was deployed in Iraq. "Pray that the people that are causing us to stay out there can see the light and change their ways without harm coming to them first."

Then, in character, the 27-year-old preacher's son with a prankster's heart outlined the retribution he could deliver: "All I gotta do is flex and their brains will explode out of sheer amazement, so again ... don't worry about me."

But Gifford's moxie, Christian faith and cheeky humor could not protect him from a roadside bomb that exploded near his unit while on patrol Dec. 7 in Baghdad. Gifford, an Army corporal who grew up in Torrance and most recently lived in Northern California, and a fellow soldier were killed.

Gifford was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Ft. Richardson, Alaska.

Gifford had not originally planned to go into the military. Born in San Diego, he spent his teenage years in Torrance when his father, Dale, was the minister of Hermosa Beach Church of Christ. Gifford then attended Harding University, a Christian college in Searcy, Ark.

After graduating with a degree in business management, he worked odd jobs in Redding, near where his parents had moved, while planning to become a firefighter.

But after the 2004 terrorist beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg, which was seen in a videotape distributed on the Internet, Gifford spontaneously decided to enlist, said his mother, Marsha.

"He didn't feel right sitting at home when that was going on," she said.

Until then, Gifford's older brother Ben had been the soldier in the family. Micah was the youngest of three boys, a jester who prospered on the football field though his build was far smaller than most linebackers.

At college, Gifford rode on top of elevators, glued one friend's possessions -- toothbrush, loose change, remote control, deodorant -- to a dorm countertop and covered a room with pieces of shredded paper.

"If Micah couldn't make you smile, then nobody else had a chance," a schoolmate, Darin Brazile, wrote on www.micahgifford.com, one of the tribute websites set up in Gifford's honor. "Whether it was on the practice field, the dorm, cafeteria or anywhere else you happened across him, he was having fun and usually up to something."

Gifford also was known for his great warmth. He enveloped friends and acquaintances in spontaneous bear hugs; put up the Christmas tree lights each year at the house of a friend whose family was afraid of heights; and tried to offer encouragement to whomever was around.

"He was caring on steroids," said his father, now the minister at Auburn Skyline Church of Christ, located in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. "He had a way of making every girl seem like the most beautiful girl in the world, every guy feel like he was the most important person. I can't tell you how many people came up [at the funeral] and said, 'Micah was my best friend.' "

On Gifford's MySpace page (bigdumbhonkey), he listed as his heroes: "Jesus (stud)," his parents, firefighters, soldiers, teachers and Pat Tillman, the professional football player who enlisted in the Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

Gifford's brother Ben, a Marine Corps captain stationed in San Clemente, said the jobs that Micah was working after college, such as at a rental car company and as a Yellow Pages salesman, did not fulfill him.

"We were raised in a family where the core of your upbringing was Jesus Christ, whose ultimate sacrifice made you who you were," Ben said. "That led us into a life of service. That's where Micah came from, a sense of service."

After Micah Gifford was sent to the Middle East in October, his parents had bad premonitions about him.

"I didn't have a good feeling about his safety," his father said, explaining that the war, which he supported "in its original intent," had "turned into a mess."

"It's just different when it's your baby going over," his mother said. "We didn't know where that ill feeling was coming from."

Gifford was killed less than two months into his tour.

Since his death, his friends and family have taken solace in their faith. "Heaven is lucky to have him," one wrote on the tribute website. Another added: "Micah was not only a soldier of this great country, but more importantly he was a soldier of Christ!!!"

Drew Colon, a college friend, wrote that since Gifford's death, "I've questioned God on why He took such a great advocate of Him so prematurely. Yet, I'm comforted in knowing that my understanding is little in matters of His Heavenly Plan."

Since Gifford's death, his girlfriend, Niki Milano, has been maintaining his MySpace website, posting comments from friends and others, many addressing their comments directly to him. A prominently posted poem by Brian Embry, a fellow soldier, reads in part:

"How can you be gone, I wish it wasn't like this / I hear you saying 'Because God wanted me to rock with!!'

"You always made us laugh and I never heard you curse / And in the modern Army now, that's pretty much a first....

"I never saw you drink, but you always came around / And made sure that us drinkers didn't drive up through the town.

"Your parents should be proud, and they should hear this a lot.... / Mr and Mrs Gifford your son totally rocked!!!!!!!!!!!"

In addition to his parents and brother Ben, 29, Gifford is survived by his brother Matthew, 31, of Torrance; a sister-in-law, Sara, 25; a niece, Kaitlyn, 3; and a nephew, Jonathan, 16 months.

In lieu of flowers, contributions should be sent to the World English Institute and Bible Correspondence School, 1525 NW Division, Gresham, OR 97030. It is a Church of Christ-based project that teaches English as a second language using the Bible as a text in countries abroad, including Iraq.

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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