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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Cpl. Luis D. Santos, 20, Rialto; Killed by a Roadside Bomb

July 09, 2006|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Army Cpl. Luis Daniel Santos was weary after spending several months in Iraq.

"There is so much that could happen to me here. How long must I wait to go home? How long must I wait to get seriously hurt? How long must I wait to marry my girlfriend?" he wrote on his blog at myspace.com.

He got his answer in May: The Army was sending him home to Rialto on June 23 for a two-week vacation. He and his mother planned a party to celebrate his return and the high school graduation of his younger brother, Eric. "Just got to stay alive till next month," Santos wrote after getting the news.

He made it only 11 days.

Santos, 20, was killed June 8 when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee during combat in Buhriz, northeast of Baghdad.

He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Carson, Colo.

Santos did not ship out to Iraq with boasts of bravado. He wanted to make his family proud, to protect the people of Iraq, to be a part of history. He also was scared. Before he left Ft. Carson for Iraq, Santos called his brother. It was late and it sounded as if he'd had a few drinks.

"He was scared because he was going to Iraq," Eric said. "He was telling me he loved me. He was crying. He said he didn't know what to do."

Family and friends said the thing they'll always remember about Santos is how easily he made them laugh. He'd recite favorite lines from movies or from comedian Dave Chappelle.

Santos met his fiancee, Vanessa Mota, at a track meet in high school. She had just finished a race and was reaching for a drink of water. "You know, if you put water up your nose you'll run faster," he said before demonstrating the technique, sending water spraying over his face.

Once, he decided to get even with the ice cream truck driver who frequently sped through their neighborhood. He perched behind a parked car, then leaped into the truck's path waving a $1 bill. The driver braked hard, sending merchandise flying through the truck. Eric said he and his brother got a good laugh out of that.

Santos graduated from Fontana High School in 2004. He had run on the cross country and track teams. He had a lean, runner's build when he enlisted, standing 5 feet 6 and weighing about 130 pounds. He dabbled in boxing during high school. While sparring at 16, he once landed a good combination, then quickly apologized to his ailing opponent, recalled his trainer, Ray Corona, who gave the young fighter a scolding.

Santos' mother, Irma, said she hoped her son would choose college over the military. Nonetheless, she and her husband, Carlos, immigrants from Guatemala, supported their son's decision. "We were not that thrilled, but at the same time we were proud -- the first in the family to join the military," his mother said. "This country gave us so much."

During basic training in 2004, Santos asked a drill sergeant to explain his assignment as a cavalry scout, something he had not researched while enlisting. He learned that scouts serve as the eyes and ears of the battlefield commander, going ahead of the front lines to gather intelligence and harass the enemy.

"Santos was just shell-shocked. He thought he was getting into a desk job or something," Army buddy Andrew Townsend wrote in an e-mail from Tikrit, Iraq. "That whole incident is why I called him 'Crazy Lou,' cause he had to be crazy to sign up as a scout and not know anything about it. But we later joked about the whole thing and got a lot of good laughs out of it."

Because he was on assignment in another part of the country, Townsend learned of Santos' death about a week later.

"That was the only time I've cried in this country. I've seen a lot of stuff over here, a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. But I'll never forget how it felt knowing that Santos wasn't gonna be coming back to the States when we redeployed, and we weren't gonna be able to do all the things that we had planned to do together -- barbecues, drinking a beer or two. Just everything."

Mota said she and Santos intended to start planning their wedding in November, when his assignment to Iraq was supposed to end. She spent much of the last month grieving. It was a time she had intended to spend with Santos, probably playing air hockey at an arcade at the Ontario Mills mall or taking a drive to Santa Monica, his favorite beach.

She was planning to surprise him with a scrapbook filled with photographs of themselves. There were pictures from the prom and of him lying drunk on the backyard lawn.

The last page was dedicated to their planned wedding. She included cutouts of a multitiered cake, a tuxedo, a wedding dress and a caption in fancy lettering: "And they lived happily ever after."

*

War casualties

Total U.S. deaths* as of Friday:

In and around Iraq: 2,540

* In and around Afghanistan: 255

* Other locations: 56

Source: Department of Defense* Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances

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