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Marine Lance Cpl. Raul Mercado, 21, Monrovia; Killed by Roadside Bomb

January 22, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

The biggest disappointment in Raul Mercado's young life was not getting into the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. After spending a decade in Mexico, his SAT verbal scores weren't high enough.

Still, Mercado had big plans: He wanted a career that would enable him to buy his mother -- a domestic worker at a hotel -- a home in Monrovia, where he went to high school. With a 3.5 grade-point average, he was accepted at several universities. But the way to achieve his goal, he insisted, was through the military -- even if it meant going to Iraq.

In 2004, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he hoped to garner enough recommendations from superiors to get into West Point.

"We tried to discourage him. He had so many other options," said Erica Lopez, a longtime family friend. "But his mind was made up."

Mercado was killed Jan. 7 when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle while on patrol near the village of Karmah, in the south of Iraq, near Basra. He was 21.

Mercado was assigned to the 2nd Maintenance Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He had risen to the rank of lance corporal.

A funeral service was held Wednesday at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia, where Mayor Rob Hammond called Mercado "one of Monrovia's heroes." Mercado is the first serviceman from Monrovia to be killed in Iraq.

"This was a young man whose sense of his own personal self was very strong," said Hammond, who as mayor had handed Mercado his diploma when he graduated and whose son was on the same track team as Mercado. "He was very determined. He didn't make decisions lightly. Monrovia weeps for one of its sons."

The city of 40,000 residents has planned numerous memorials for Mercado. Officials named Jan. 18-25 as Raul Mercado Week, during which the flags at public buildings are being flown at half-staff. A living memorial, with artifacts from the Marine's life, will be established at a local public library, Hammond said.

Mercado was born in the Los Angeles area but moved with his family to Mexico at the age of 7 to his father's town of Ixtlahuacan, near Guadalajara, in the province of Jalisco.

When he was 17, family members returned to California and he enrolled in Monrovia High School as a sophomore. He initially struggled with English. But within one year he had improved to the point that he could join the school's regular curriculum.

Mercado was a member of the school's Spanish Honor Society and competed in several sports. At 5 feet 11 and slender, he played basketball, track and field and was a cross-country runner. He also liked to draw and was fascinated by mathematics. Friends considered him a prankster, Lopez said.

Oscar Ibarra, a college advisor at Monrovia High, recalled how hard Mercado worked on his English to score well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into West Point. He was tutored and studied on weekends and late at night.

"That's what he had his heart set on," Ibarra said. "He was disappointed. So he saw enlisting in the Marines as a way to achieve his dream."

Lopez said the family tried numerous tactics to discourage Mercado. They told the young man that he would suffer in boot camp. But Mercado thrived at Camp Pendleton.

Lopez recalled that soon after he graduated from boot camp, Mercado attended her wedding dressed in his Marine Corps uniform.

"We were so proud of him that he had made it," she said. "He looked so good in that full uniform. He was so happy. This is what he wanted."

In Iraq, Mercado called and wrote his family regularly. He never wavered from his conviction that he had made the right choice.

"He knew that was the way to buy his mother the house he wanted," Lopez said. "I remember the day he visited my parents' house, and he asked his mother, 'Mom, do you want a house like this? I'm going to get you one.' "

Mercado is survived by his mother, Celia; his father, Raul, who lives in Mexico; two sisters, 22 and 14; and a brother who is a sophomore at Monrovia High.

Students at Monrovia High have so far collected $1,500 to help pay for Mercado's funeral costs. His body will be buried near Guadalajara, Mexico.

While speaking at the Marine's funeral service last week, Mayor Hammond addressed Celia Mercado. He told her that Monrovians would never forget her son. "Raul Mercado," he said, "will remain in all of our hearts."

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