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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Spc. Rafael Martinez Jr., 36, Spring Valley; among 3 soldiers killed by blast in Afghanistan

Martinez overcame a difficult youth to pursue his dream of a military career. He earned a Purple Heart after being injured in Iraq and was then deployed to Afghanistan.

March 06, 2011|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Family members and friends described Army Spc. Rafael Martinez Jr. as a generous, charitable man who would often go out of his way to assist stranded motorists.
Family members and friends described Army Spc. Rafael Martinez Jr. as a…

Whenever Rafael Martinez Jr. set out for a drive — whether in his neighborhood or on a long journey — he always made sure his dark blue Chevy Silverado pickup truck was stocked with the essentials: water, antifreeze and a can filled with gasoline.

It wasn't that Martinez, of the San Diego County community of Spring Valley, was an especially cautious man, said his wife, Christine Martinez. Instead, his actions grew out of a deep sense of charity and goodwill.

There was the time he happened upon a man who had been trapped upside down for hours in his car after an accident on a desolate stretch of California freeway, for example. But most of the time, Martinez gave a helping hand to drivers who ran out of gas.

Each month, his wife said, he gave away gallons of fuel to motorists he had never met and would probably never see again.

"He was always trying to help people," Christine Martinez said. "He told me, 'If I see someone that is the underdog, I will go out of my way to help that underdog rise above.' "

In that sense Martinez, an Army specialist who was killed in combat Oct. 14 in Afghanistan at age 36, might have been talking about himself.

He grew up in a housing project in Stockton. A small, quiet boy, Martinez wore cowboy boots and collared Western-style shirts that were emblematic of his early life in rural Torreon, Mexico. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 8.

His upbringing was anything but easy, his wife said. He was picked on and would regularly return home from school with cuts and black eyes.

In time, he sought protection from the constant abuse in a gang of boys he knew in school and in the projects. During his teenage years, that association got him in trouble with the law, his wife said. In the most serious incident, he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for stealing.

That experience, and a short-lived first marriage at 18, led him to rethink the direction of his life, Christine Martinez said.

He increasingly turned his attention to a military career in spite of vigorous objections from his parents and the difficulty of convincing recruiters that he would be a productive soldier despite his criminal history.

From the age of 17, he had been drawn to the Army for its esprit de corps and service of country. This was the real gang, a force for good, where he wanted to belong and make his mark, his wife said.

For a time, he had his own company that did biological cleanup. But he continued contacting various recruiters to pursue his dream of a military career.

In 2007, one recruiter who was near retirement finally was persuaded that the young man had potential and deserved a second chance. He pushed and pushed to get Martinez into the military.

By then, he had married his second wife, Christine Ballon. The two had met in 2003 at a video store in Spring Valley.

Known as "Marty" by his fellow soldiers, Martinez was assigned to the 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division based at Ft. Carson, Colo.

Before his service in Afghanistan, Martinez had deployed to Iraq for a year beginning in March 2008. He was injured by a roadside explosive device there and lost some of his hearing, but even after earning a Purple Heart he resisted going home early.

Friends and family said it was part of Martinez's gregarious, positive and selfless nature. He always wanted to help and had an uncanny ability to relate to people — not only stranded civilians, but those up and down the military chain of command, they said.

He deployed to Afghanistan in August. On Oct. 14, Martinez was one of three soldiers killed when insurgents attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device during a patrol in northwestern Afghanistan.

Soon after her husband's death, Christine Martinez drove to Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, where the couple had often gone for day hikes amid the spectacular formations of red sandstone.

"I felt him there," she said of the trip. "There were a lot of memories. We went hiking, held hands and watched the sunsets. I remember the warmth we had."

In addition to his wife, his daughter Davina, 6, and son Rafael Martinez III, 15 months, Martinez is survived by his father, Rafael Martinez Sr., and sister, Mona Martinez, all of Spring Valley.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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