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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Marine Cpl. Michael Estrella, 20, Hemet; Sniper Victim Was 2,500th U.S. Military Death in Iraq

July 09, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The 2,500th member of the U.S. military killed in Iraq was Cpl. Michael A. Estrella, a 20-year-old Marine from Riverside County enamored of the military since his Junior ROTC days at Hemet High School.

Estrella was killed June 14 by a sniper while on foot patrol in Haditha, in the insurgent stronghold of Al Anbar province. He was a field radio operator with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

"He was just special," said his mother, Maria. "He did everything, and he never gave me any problems. He was always there for me and his brothers and sisters. He did a lot for his family."

She last spoke with her son June 11 when he called to inquire about his cancer-stricken great-grandfather, Victor Gonzalez Sr. He had fought in World War II as an Army Air Forces pilot, experiences Estrella heard about while growing up and that influenced his desire to join the military.

At Hemet High, Estrella joined the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, appreciating the order and discipline required by the drills. He moved up the ranks and by graduation was a flight commander overseeing 30 cadets.

But Estrella preferred to be on the ground when it came to serving. "He always said he wanted to be out there fighting with his brothers," his mother said.

Estrella joined the Marine Corps in September 2003 and was sent to Kaneohe Bay. While stationed on Oahu, Estrella wiled away his off-hours driving his car around the island, visiting the beach and unsuccessfully searching for an authentic version of his favorite dish, menudo.

In November 2004, he was deployed to Afghanistan for eight months, an experience that changed him.

"He was just depressed about everything he had seen, and he was scared," his mother said. "That's why when he left for Iraq, it scared us as well."

Knowing an Iraq deployment was inevitable, Estrella's mother tried to persuade her son to tell the Marine Corps about his asthma problems in hopes he would be relieved of duty. But she said her son refused: "He said, 'No, I have to go.' He said he wanted to be there with his brothers."

Estrella was sent to Iraq in March. The day before he left, he shipped his car home, an unexpected act that makes his mother wonder whether he had a premonition.

"I'm thinking he was being prepared," she said. "He knew, or maybe he had that feeling: 'I'm not coming back, I better get everything in order for my mom.' "

Estrella is survived by a large family, including five younger brothers and sisters for whom he would baby-sit while his mother and father, Francisco, worked.

His sister Sasha, 18, said her brother was her best friend, whom she would seek out for advice about boys and other teenage issues.

"I always used to talk to him about everything," she said. "He would always tell me, 'Don't worry; you've got to keep your feet up and keep walking.' He would tell me that he would always be there for me and support me."

Estrella also is survived by about 30 cousins. Last summer, most took a trip to San Felipe, Mexico, where they sunbathed and rode all-terrain vehicles on the beach.

"It was just spending family time together," said cousin Vanessa Lozano, 19. "He was a good cousin and a good friend."

Another cousin, Cynthia Enriquez, 15, recalled that when Estrella came home on leave, "it was like a party."

But those meetings were bittersweet, she said.

"I wasn't sure if he was going to come back or not," she said. "This is what I was most afraid of."

Estrella was buried June 23 with military honors at Riverside National Cemetery after a funeral Mass at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Hemet. His parents received his posthumous Purple Heart at the burial.

Estrella also was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment ribbon.

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