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California's Iraq and Afghanistan war dead remembered

Veterans Day is particularly poignant for the families and friends of California's more than 700 who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

November 11, 2012|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Chase Marta, 24, of Yuba City was one of more than 40 California service members who have died in the line of duty since last Veterans Day. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Chase Marta, 24, of Yuba City was one of more than 40 California service members… (Handout )

They came from Walker Basin, a speck of a community at the edge of the Sequoia National Forest. From the farm town of Reedley, where a barber gives boys joining the military free haircuts before they ship out.

They came from San Francisco. Los Angeles. San Diego.

When they died, photos went up on post office walls in their hometowns. On Veterans Day, there are parades and charity golf tournaments. Buddies gather at graves to drink to the ones who are gone.

In the 11 years since the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, 725 service members from California have been killed.

As all veterans are honored, the fallen are remembered

Many died young — 41% were not yet 22. Sixty-three were still teenagers.

They were fun-loving singles. Forty-seven were engaged. They were married, leaving behind 307 wives and husbands. They had children — 432 sons and daughters.

Forty of their obituaries noted that the Sept. 11 attacks spurred them to join up. Some were in elementary school when they watched the Twin Towers fall.

The scope of their loss can't be measured at one point in time. Life moves on, the wars are winding down. But towns, families and individual lives continue to be shaped by their absence.

Lately, 9-year-old Naomi Izabella Johnson has been asking a lot of questions about her father, Allen Johnson, a Special Forces medical sergeant from Los Molinos who was killed on foot-combat patrol in Khanaqin, Afghanistan, in 2005.

What was his favorite color? School subject? Animal? Book? Did he like mashed potatoes?

"It helps me for when I try to imagine him," she said.

Two months ago, her 10-year-old brother, Joshua, started crying inconsolably.

"What's wrong?" his mother, Eunice Johnson, recalled asking.

"I'm starting to forget — sometimes I can't see Daddy's face."

In Yuba City, Taylor Silva, 21, has been spending some time alone. Last week marked six months since her fiance, Chase Marta, 24, was killed by a roadside bomb in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. He was one of more than 40 California service members to have died in the line of duty since last Veterans Day.

"I know his family and best friend have it just as hard. But we're all being a little quiet to each other because we're all a reminder to each other. His mom can't see me without crying," Silva said.

Seventeen women from California have been killed in the wars.

Hannah Gunterman McKinney of Redlands had told her father that the Army wouldn't send a new mother to Iraq. But she was deployed when her son, Todd Avery Gunterman, was just 1. Ten months later, in 2006, she was run over by a Humvee in Taji, north of Baghdad. She was 20.

She had joined the military as a way to earn money to go to fashion school. She reenlisted because she was a single mother and wanted to give her son financial stability. Now her parents are raising Todd Avery.

Eighty-one of California's war dead were foreign born, coming from 21 countries. Nearly half of those started life in Mexico but called America home. At least seven were "green card" soldiers and Marines.

Army Sgt. David Jimenez Almazan was one of them.

He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. The combat medic had been born in Guadalajara. His boyhood dream was to be a Los Angeles County firefighter, and he'd started the citizenship process long before joining the service or meeting Salina, his American-born wife.

After 9/11, he enlisted. "This isn't about a green card. This is my country and I'm going to defend it,'" Salina recalled him saying.

A few weeks after being deployed to Iraq in 2006, he learned he was to be sworn in during a war zone ceremony. Two days later, at age 27, he was killed by a roadside bomb near the Syria-Iraq border. He gained citizenship posthumously.

The oldest soldier to die was 60.

Steven Hutchison's job was to train Iraqi police. A liberal psychology professor, he didn't always follow the rules. For instance, one day he brought a puppy back from patrol and hid her from senior Army officers. After Hutchison was killed by a roadside bomb a month short of his 61st birthday, his team found a way to sneak the dog, Laia, out of camp and to a home in the United States.

"A tough man with a soft heart for a four-legged princess," one of the members of his team wrote on an online memorial.

In Clovis, seven graduates of Buchanan High have lost their lives in the wars, the most from any school in California.

Jeremiah Baro, 21, and Jared Hubbard, 22, had been best friends since early childhood. They joined the Marines together and they died together, killed by a bomb in Fallouja, Iraq, in 2004. They were the first Buchanan casualties.

Hubbard's two brothers, Nathan and Jason, then joined the Army — Nathan to walk in his brother's boots, older brother Jason to keep an eye on Nathan. In 2007, they were in separate Black Hawk helicopters over Multaka, Iraq, when Nathan's went down. Jason's unit recovered the body.

Andrea DerManouel's son was one of their friends, part of a big group of boys who had hung out at one another's houses. She's watched them graduate, start careers, get married. In the last year, seven of the young men — who call themselves the Hubbard-Baro friends — have become fathers.

"Every wedding, every birth, every milestone, you see them get a six-pack of beer and head to the cemetery to just be there together. The loss of who isn't with them at each step just goes on and on, " DerManouel said.

"They suffered so much loss so young. Their generation is marked in a way I think I can't begin to understand."

diana.marcum@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report. For more on California's war dead, and to share a memory about one of the fallen go to California’s War Dead

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