Army Sgt. Israel Garcia and his wife, Lesly, were strolling through his base in Vicenza, Italy, one afternoon when he noticed a community bulletin board with a small advertisement for a souped-up, red and silver 1996 Volkswagen with images of checkered racing flags on the doors.
The graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School thought it looked cool and he loved its specs: a powerful engine, black and red interior and a price of $3,500. "I was hoping it was already sold because we didn't have much money," his wife said. "But he had this big smile on his face and said, 'Babe, this is it.' "
After a test drive, Garcia told the owner he needed a few minutes to think it over. "Then he turned to me and said, 'Please, babe, please,' " she said. "I looked him in the eye and said, 'OK -- if you can lower the price.' "
He got the car for $3,000, and soon they were embarking on road trip adventures into the heart of Italy's most scenic landscapes and romantic cities -- Florence, Milan, Venice -- usually with the windows rolled down and singing along to his favorite CDs of Mexican corridos.
The couple also used these drives to plan their future. "Babe," he told his wife over and over, "I've got to take this car back to the States."
It was not to be, however.
Garcia, 24, was among nine soldiers killed July 13 when insurgents armed with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a fierce assault on a remote, relatively lightly manned U.S. outpost near the village of Wanat, near Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan.
He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza.
Garcia had enlisted in October 2002, shortly after graduating from Poly High. He was sent to Italy in July 2006, four months after marrying Lesly, his high school sweetheart.
Lesly Garcia, 24, was staying with relatives in Long Beach and preparing to return to Vicenza when she received the bad news.
"He was going to return home in a few weeks and we had already booked reservations for a special vacation," she said. "The last time we spoke on the telephone, he said, 'Babe, can you believe we're going to Spain?' "
Garcia was born in the state of Nayarit, Mexico. At age 2, he moved with his family to Long Beach, where he attended Lafayette Elementary and Jackie Robinson Academy. At Poly High, his best friend was also named Israel, so most people called him "Garcia." He had a passion for soccer and horses, and wanted to become a Long Beach Police Department investigator.
"And he was a very, very responsible boy," said his mother, Maricruz Garcia. "I never had to wake him up to go to school, or tell him to finish his homework or clean his room."
Lesly Garcia added that "he had saved some money even before we got married. He said, 'We might really need that money some day, babe. You never know.' "
A month ago, the nest egg helped her pay for a trip to Vicenza, where she has been fighting for permission to bring the Volkswagen back to the United States. Trouble is, military authorities said the car does not meet U.S. standards and cannot enter the country without an expensive overhaul. "But I don't want them to touch it because then it wouldn't be the same," she said, trying not to cry. "If I have to, I'll have it stored in Italy and visit it. I can't imagine anyone else driving that car."
In addition to his wife, Garcia is survived by his parents, Victor and Maricruz Garcia; and a brother, Ramsses Garcia, all of Long Beach.