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Military Deaths : MARINE LANCE CPL. ALFONSO OCHOA JR., 20, ARMONA : Unlucky step triggers buried explosive

November 15, 2009|Robert Faturechi

Early on in high school, Alfonso Ochoa Jr. decided he needed to get out of Armona, the tiny Central California town where he grew up. He saw his friends making bad decisions and, without a change, he figured his future looked bleak.

Joining the Marine Corps was a way to escape, according to several who knew him.

"Around here, there is a cycle. Families are in a cycle; people don't leave," said Bobby Peters, principal of Hanford West High School, where Ochoa attended. "He didn't want that to happen to him, and he was going to cut ties if he had to."

During his junior year, Ochoa began distancing himself from his usual crowd and began focusing on completing the credits he needed to graduate, Peters said.

The young man was in such a rush to enlist that for his final semester he opted to enroll at a local adult school, where he was able to earn his diploma in a hurry, working at a faster pace than at a traditional high school. He left for basic training a short time later.

Peters, who had counseled Ochoa for years, was disappointed. He had hoped Ochoa would stay and graduate with his peers, but in the decision he noticed a transformation.

"It was one of the first times I'd seen him becoming a man, saying, 'No, Mr. Peters, this is what I'm going to do,' " the principal recalled. "I was proud of him. He had that much vision and clarity in his life."

The meeting in fall 2007 would be their last.

The 20-year-old lance corporal was killed Oct. 10 in western Afghanistan's Farah province, on the Iranian border. Ochoa was on patrol with his unit when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, military officials said. He was the only one killed in the explosion.

Ochoa's wife, Angie, whom he married just weeks before he left for Afghanistan in May, and other family members declined to be interviewed. But his parents, who emigrated from Mexico, sent a statement to The Times describing their son as both headstrong and giving.

Ramona and Alfonso Ochoa Sr. said that after their son graduated from basic training, he had not received a promised bonus from the Marine Corps, but they said he quickly dismissed their concerns.

"I'm not getting it, but it's the least of my worries," his parents recalled him saying. "Those who truly want to become Marines, the money does not matter."

His selfless spirit was on display again, they wrote, when Ochoa came home last Christmas on leave. He brought bags full of toys and asked his parents to pass them out to needy kids in the area. "Alfonso would always concern himself of others," they wrote.

Staff members at Hanford West High remember Ochoa as an affable student, a soccer enthusiast who always was smiling and cracking jokes with classmates and adults.

Counselor Ed Kotoian remembered sharing running gags with his former student. He said he would shoot his index fingers out at Ochoa and greet him as "The Fonz," a pop culture reference that was before the student's time, but he would laugh anyway.

Kotoian, who began counseling at the school during Ochoa's sophomore year, recalled warning him about the danger of enlisting in the midst of two wars.

"I explained to him he would be putting his life on the line," the counselor said. "But he said he understood that and he was willing to do that for his country."

Ochoa was just two weeks from returning home from his deployment when he was killed. He and his wife had planned a trip to Colorado to visit a friend after he came home.

In addition to his wife and parents, Ochoa is survived by two brothers, Alex and Daniel.

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robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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