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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Army Sgt. Felix G. Gonzalez-Iraheta, 25, Sun Valley; killed in mortar attack

June 03, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Felix G. Gonzalez-Iraheta didn't have a moment to waste.

His younger brother Sesar had slipped off a moss-covered rock while they played along a riverbank during a family camping trip when Felix was 11. Without hesitation, he dived beneath the water's surface and snatched his brother from the grip of a swift and powerful current.

"I just remember being completely under the water, and the current was moving really fast. It could've taken me anywhere," Sesar recalled. "I didn't know how to swim. I could've died if it wasn't for him."

Whether he was jumping into a river to save a sibling, sacrificing teenage fun to help his parents make ends meet or becoming the man of the family after his dad had a stroke, Gonzalez-Iraheta was considered a hero by those who knew him.

"He was my right hand," said his mother, Reina Gonzalez. "I'm very proud to know he died a hero trying to save other people's lives."

Gonzalez-Iraheta, a 25-year-old Army sergeant from Sun Valley, was killed in a mortar attack May 3 in Baghdad. Also killed was Army Spc. John Derek Flores, 21, of Guam. They were mechanics with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in Schweinfurt, Germany, responsible for maintaining 200 vehicles and protecting the troops who ride in them.

Gonzalez-Iraheta, better known as "Gonzo" around the barracks, had led members of his unit to the safety of a bunker and was fatally wounded when he left to make sure no one else was in danger, the Army told the family.

During ceremonies in Baghdad and Germany, and on Internet sites dedicated to fallen troops, Gonzalez-Iraheta was remembered as an expert on Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees, particularly skilled at fixing the gun turrets that shield the troops and protect the weapons they are firing.

"He was the go-to guy for any turret problems that came up on the Bradleys," Sgt. 1st Class Eddie Battles wrote in a post from Taji, Iraq, on the website Legacy.com. "I was not on his team, but I as many other mechanics went to him when we had problems, and he never failed to help us out as best he could."

Born in El Salvador, Gonzalez-Iraheta was a year old when he moved with his parents to the San Fernando Valley, where the couple had two more sons. They shared a home with a close-knit, extended family as they struggled to build a better life for themselves in America.

Nicknamed "Tito," short for Felicito, Gonzalez-Iraheta was relied upon to translate for his Spanish-speaking parents. He also became a regular babysitter for his younger brothers, Sesar and David, while his parents worked long hours -- his father as a tailor and his mother in a factory that makes beauty products.

He made good grades at San Fernando High School and loved to play basketball but didn't have time to play organized sports, his family said, because when he wasn't keeping an eye on his brothers, he was working on his uncle's ice cream truck to help pay the bills.

Gonzalez-Iraheta had great respect for his hard-working parents, seemed to relish his own responsibilities and rarely complained, relatives said. One of his cousins who shared the family's first home in Thousand Oaks credited him with keeping his brothers away from gangs.

"One of the toughest things for my uncle and aunt with three teenage boys was that there were always so [many] gangs," said Marcia Gonzalez, 27. "They were always able to stay away from them. Felix had a lot to do with that."

Brimming with optimism and a goofy sense of humor, he would often surprise his brothers and younger cousins with video games, designer clothes and other gifts to make them feel as if they weren't so poor. It was in this same spirit that he later sent part of his Army paycheck home and took the family to places such as SeaWorld when he was on leave.

Sesar, now 21 and an Air Force mechanic stationed in New Mexico, recalled the day that his brother took him sneaker shopping at Footlocker, not the discount store they usually patronized. Gonzalez-Iraheta found some fancy sneakers to buy for himself, until he saw Sesar checking out a pair with flashing lights that were all the rage at the time.

"With no questions asked, he picked them up and brought them to the counter," Sesar said.

"It was a simple act. But he was always like that. He was never looking for praise for everything he did for us. He would say, 'I'm your older brother, and it's my responsibility.' "

Gonzalez-Iraheta joined the Army after graduating from high school. He was stationed in Germany when he found the love of his life about five years ago and started a family of his own. He met his wife, Janet, through a fellow soldier. He called her "Schatz," which is German for "my darling."

By all accounts, there was nothing Gonzalez-Iraheta enjoyed more than spending time with Janet and their daughters, Selena, 4, and Annabel, 1.

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