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A community grieves

Thousand Oaks honors its first resident to die in Iraq

February 06, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Anthony Melia was born and raised in Thousand Oaks. He was a football and track star at the local high school and loved navigating the hilly, suburban streets on his motorcycle before entering the military.

Last month, Melia became the first person from Thousand Oaks to die in the war in Iraq, and residents decided it was a moment for the entire community to mourn.

On Monday, supermarket cashiers still wearing their aprons, men and women in business suits and high school students in physical education uniforms lined the main boulevards of Thousand Oaks to say goodbye.

In a "rolling memorial tribute" organized by friends of the 20-year-old lance corporal and by volunteers who never knew him, people turned out to wave flags and salute as the procession carrying his casket passed through the upscale Ventura County suburb.

Another 2,000 attended Melia's funeral, followed by a military ceremony at the cemetery, where Marines in their dress blues fired rifles, played taps and released white doves.

There are other towns where the war in Iraq has taken a heavier toll. Five soldiers from Riverside have been killed, as have four from San Bernardino, and two each from Covina and South Gate. Hemet High School has endured the wartime deaths of three recent graduates.

But organizers of the Thousand Oaks event said they were moved to action because the war hit home. Many residents who took part said they did so not to make a political commentary on the war but simply to pay tribute to the sacrifice of a neighbor.

"It's a matter of honoring him," said Scott Waite, who took his two young sons to watch the procession. "They're part of our community and he's one of ours."

Organizers had spent the last week posting fliers and passing out small American flags to merchants and residents to wave as the procession rolled by.

Hundreds of residents spent part of Super Bowl Sunday putting flags in the ground and tying yellow ribbons to trees around town in honor of Melia, who was shot and killed Jan. 27 by insurgents.

On every major street corner along the route and in front of high schools and elementary schools, banks and auto body shops, children waving flags, mothers pushing baby strollers and men ducking out of their offices paused to pay tribute to a young man whom they considered one of their own.

"It doesn't matter if you support the war or not, it's about the kids," said resident Amy Moorman, who helped organize the decorating of Wildwood Elementary School, where a yellow sign on the chain-link fence read: "We Honor Lc Cpl Melia, Our Hero."

Outside Thousand Oaks High School, where Melia ran track and was a defensive back and punt and kick returner on the football team, a crowd of students, teachers and residents raised flags and stood with their right hands over their hearts as the procession passed. Football players from teams past and present wore their green jerseys.

About an hour before the service, Isa Ramos and her son hung a large American flag outside their business, Valley Bakery, on Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Even though they didn't know the Melias personally, Ramos said they thought it was important to pay their respects.

"Half of our family is in the military," Ramos said. "Some of them are in Iraq. They're giving their lives for our freedom. This is good for the city of Thousand Oaks, with the flags all around."


Melia's father, Mike, and others in his close-knit, extended family tried to talk Anthony out of enlisting. Handsome and athletic, he could have become a model or actor. He was smart; why not go to college and later apply to officer training school, his family asked. At least join the Air Force.

When he was 17, Anthony asked his parents to sign the enlistment form, but his father told him to wait and make the decision when he turned 18. Perhaps with time, Mike Melia thought, his son, who seemed to always do and say the right thing, would come to his senses.

Three months after his 2005 graduation from Thousand Oaks High School, Melia joined the Marines.

"I would have done anything to keep him from going," Mike Melia said last week. "But he believed in what he was doing. He believed in the United States and what the United States stands for."

Once his decision was made, his family fell into line, said his aunt, Marcy Douglas, who lives near Reno.

"He never questioned that his family was behind him," Douglas said. "We have followed him every step of the way. Every single one of us was there for him. He is our first family member in generations to be called to duty. We have read his e-mails. We talked to him on the phone in whatever port he was in. We made ourselves available."

They even filled the bleachers at his graduation from boot camp.

"It was like a wedding," Douglas said of the party afterward.

He quickly climbed the ranks, becoming the fire team squad leader for the Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Pendleton. He was deployed to Iraq in September.

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