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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Army Pfc. Justin A. Verdeja, 20, East Los Angeles; hit by small weapons fire in Iraq

June 24, 2007|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Army Pfc. Justin A. Verdeja carried around a boom box so he could sing ballads to pretty girls. He dashed for touchdowns at Garfield High School, bused tables to help support his mother and brothers, and dreamed of joining the LAPD's SWAT team.

Even though his family moved out of his childhood neighborhood, Verdeja always returned. "He had a lot of pride of where he was from, East Los Angeles.... No matter where he went, he made it known," said a friend, Kalla Guerrero.

This month Verdeja returned to East Los Angeles one last time to be eulogized "at home," said his mother, Gina Gonzalez. About 300 people attended his funeral Mass at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church on South Atlantic Boulevard.

Verdeja, 20, died June 5 after being hit by small weapons fire from insurgents in Baghdad. A private first class, he went to Iraq in October as part of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, based in Ft. Carson, Colo. The Army posthumously awarded Verdeja the Bronze Star.

Gonzalez, the mother of six boys, said her second-oldest had entered the military so he could someday buy her a house. He planned to eventually go to college and apply to the Police Department.

"He wanted to serve his country and at the same time get an education. Well, the education never came," she said.

Verdeja, slim and muscular, excelled as a triple-jumper and wide receiver at Garfield High. Friends and family recall him as a soft-spoken, incorrigible flirt who rarely missed an opportunity at school to try to impress girls with his singing.

He had more passion than talent, joked Guerrero, who said Verdeja's favorite ballad was "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith. "He sang that song and annoyed the whole world. It was horrible," she said.

In a neighborhood where gangs roam, Verdeja's life revolved around family and friends. His idea of a good time was to hang out and watch movies or go bowling. During his senior year, he got a job as a busboy at the Stinking Rose restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Some of the money he earned went to his mother and his younger brothers.

"He would do anything to make me happy. I'm the younger brother, so he always kind of looked after me.... He always made sure that I was good," said Jonathan Guerra, who planned to get images of his brother's dog tags tattooed on his neck and chest.

Verdeja always sounded upbeat in his regular phone calls home, his mother said. But he had narrowly escaped a recent attack, she said. On his last trip home this year, Verdeja spent a lot of time around the house, watching movies and getting head massages from his mother.

He went to Ensenada and rode dirt bikes with his brother Jonathan, who said Verdeja took a nasty fall once but was all smiles. Verdeja was just happy to be around family again, Jonathan said.

"My familia," wrote Verdeja on his MySpace home page, www.myspace.com/Verdeja88. "It is the most important thing in my life, I believe that in the end u will always have family."

Verdeja is survived by his mother and five brothers.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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