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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Army Pfc. David T. Toomalatai, 19, Carson; killed by a bomb in Iraq

February 18, 2007|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

David T. Toomalatai told his high school sweetheart that he was joining the Army so he could better take care of their unborn son. His dream of a football scholarship failed to materialize, and he saw the military as his ticket to a college education in the medical field.

In his first months in Iraq, the 19-year-old medic was among three soldiers killed Jan. 27 when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee in Taji, north of Baghdad.

The death of the Samoan American, known for his smile and humor, has devastated his family in Carson and prompted the Banning High School community in Wilmington to mourn the loss of one of its own.

His funeral reunited the Class of 2005, bringing together former students, teachers, coaches and counselors, as well as friends and family, to honor a varsity football co-captain who was a standout on the field and in the classroom. The private first class was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

"It was one of the longest motorcades I've ever seen," said Mary Bane, who was Toomalatai's science teacher. "Even the general who was there representing the military was very moved."

Toomalatai's coach and former teammates scrawled farewell messages on a football that was placed on his coffin as it was lowered at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes. Others placed leis, symbols of his Samoan heritage.

Jeff Evans, his former coach and now Banning High's athletic director, provided the family with a football highlight videotape to keep for the soldier's son. At the end of the academic year, the high school will retire Toomalatai's football jersey, No. 80, and present it to the family.

Born in Torrance and raised as a young boy in Honolulu, Toomalatai returned to California with his large family at age 9. He was the fourth of seven children born to Vai and Sally Toomalatai. He played volleyball and football in high school and challenged himself with Advanced Placement classes.

After graduating in June 2005, he attended a semester at Harbor College in Wilmington when football scholarships didn't materialize. Soon he learned that he was to become a father.

"When I found out I was pregnant and I told him, he started saying he should go into the Army," said Daniela Perea, his longtime sweetheart. "I told him, 'Don't do that just because of us.' He had set in his mind that this was what he wanted to do."

He was following in the footsteps of his father, a retiree from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, who said, "I am so proud of my son."

Toomalatai missed the birth of his son while he was in training with the Army. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.

On his personal Web page at www.MySpace.com, Toomalatai posted a slew of photos of the person he would most like to meet: his infant son. "I've got a beautiful baby boy named Damien who's my life," he wrote.

In September, he was granted a week's leave. He spent the week at home with his son, learning about feeding schedules, naps and how to burp the baby. A month later, he shipped out for Iraq.

"Mommy, everything over here is fine," he wrote in an e-mail from Camp Taji to his mother two days before his death. Toomalatai had just learned that his father had been elevated to the status of bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Tell my dad that I'm still saying my prayers," he wrote. "See you soon."

"It's the last thing I have from him," his mother said. He sent it on a Wednesday. That weekend, she was giving her grandson a bath when the doorbell rang. "I saw the military man standing outside. I grabbed my grandson and started crying."

Damien, now 10 months old, spends weekends with the grandparents. The happy baby has brought some measure of comfort to Savali Toomalatai, 18, who is struggling with the loss of her big brother.

"Damien has his father's smile," she said. "Looking at him is like looking at my brother."

In addition to his parents and Savali, Toomalatai is survived by his other siblings, Doreen, Elizabeth, James, Mara and Michael, as well as a large extended family.

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ken.weiss@latimes.com

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