A deadly month: The lives and stories of 22 Californians who died in one brutal month in the war on terror
Recounting one especially bad month in the wars following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Michael W. Mitchell, 25
When Michael W. Mitchell’s stepmother heard that a soldier from his division had been killed in Iraq, she emailed him in worry. “Hey, I’m OK,” Mitchell replied. “Just so you know, there is like 35,000 soldiers in the 1st Armored Division, so no reason to get all panicky.”
One day later, Mitchell and seven other U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad when they were attacked by armed Iraqi insurgents.
Mitchell was born in Huntington Beach but grew up in the central California town of Porterville, where at Monache High School he competed on the varsity wrestling, cross country and track teams.
He deployed to Iraq from a U.S. base in Germany 10 months before his death.
He had been scheduled to return to Germany on April 19 to marry his fiancee.
Another Californian who was killed in Iraq just two days after Mitchell, Marine Lance Cpl. Marcus M. Cherry, also planned to marry. Forty-seven Californians who died in the conflicts following the Sept. 11 attacks were engaged.
Casey Sheehan, 24
Casey Sheehan’s parents thought it was out of character when the quiet young man and former altar boy joined the Army.
But while grieving their son’s death in Iraq, Pat and Cindy Sheehan began to understand his decision better: Their son, who had done volunteer work as a Boy Scout and had been a camp counselor, seemed happiest when helping others.
“It occurred to us that he died in uniform, which is a continuing theme for his life of service,” his father said from the family’s home in Vacaville, Calif., just days after the 24-year-old’s death.
Sheehan was one of eight soldiers killed April 4 in Baghdad. He was a member of the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.
Sheehan had a behind-the-scenes job maintaining Humvees and typically was not supposed to become engaged in firefights. But he volunteered to go out on a mission to extract soldiers caught in a hostile situation with insurgents, Pat Sheehan said he had been told by his son’s sergeant.
After the young Army specialist’s death, his mother became one of the best-known antiwar activists of the era, camping out near then-President George W. Bush’s ranch near Waco, Texas, demanding an audience.
Allan K. Walker, 28
As a teenager, Allan K. Walker had a rebellious streak. He wore a green Mohawk and had notable disregard for classroom discipline. But he was also well-read, and surprised teachers with his writing and knowledge of literature.
After high school, he worked at a fast-food restaurant and in 1994 surprised his parents by enlisting in the Marines. Walker had been a wrestler and offensive lineman at Highland High School in Palmdale and his intimidating presence inspired a drill instructor nickname him “The Beast.”
“I had my doubts about him and the Marines, knowing how my son rebelled against authority,” his father, Ken, told The Times in 2004. “When he came back from boot camp, I was so proud. They took a punk kid and turned out a young man with a sense of honor.”
Walker’s family had a history of military service dating to the American Revolution. His grandfathers had fought in World War II, an uncle in Vietnam, and a great-grandfather in World War I; other family members fought in the Civil War. Walker was killed during a battle in Iraq’s Anbar province.
Travis J. Layfield, 19
Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein had been deposed a year earlier, when the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment, deployed to Ramadi in March 2004. The aim was to provide stability and help aid in Iraq’s transition to democracy, but the mission soon descended into what one officer called
“full-blown urban combat.”
On April 6, the first day of fighting, 12 Marines were killed, including Travis J. Layfield.
On an April day 10 years later, family members of the fallen and hundreds of former and active-duty Marines gathered at Camp Pendleton to remember the Marines who fought and died in Ramadi.
Layfield’s mother, Dianne Layfield, was among the family members who had encouraged the Marine Corps to commemorate the 10th anniversary. “The pain never goes away,” she said at the ceremony. “I cry almost every day: A song or something will remind me of Travis. I will never let them be forgotten.”
Kyle D. Crowley, 18
Early on, Kyle D. Crowley was set on a military career. His father was an Army veteran and a grandfather had served with the Marines in World War II. “That was the path that he wanted,” his father, Mark Crowley, told The Times in 2004. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
In satellite phone conversations with his father from Iraq, Crowley described his life there: three or four hours of sleep at night and one hot meal a day. But he wasn’t complaining. As a teenager, he had volunteered for physical training on weekends to prepare for military duty and worked in the recruiting office in San Ramon. He joined the Marines not long after his high school graduation.
“I was very honored to see him become a man,” Mark Crowley said, “but at the same time I was very scared for him.”
Crowley had been in Iraq seven weeks when he was killed in battle in Anbar province.
Marcus M. Cherry, 18
Marcus M. Cherry and his older brother, Andre, were inseparable. After Andre joined their high school’s football team, Marcus — a year younger — did the same. They wrote and performed Christian rap songs.
After Andre joined the Marines, Marcus followed. Each was sent to Iraq and by sheer chance once ran into each other outside a mess hall in Fallouja.
Some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq would occur in Fallouja and the surrounding Anbar province, and one day in April of 2004 , the brothers’ mother, Genevieve King, saw two uniformed Marines walking up her driveway. She darted out the door before the men reached her, crying: “No God, no God — not my kids!”
“I didn’t want to hear it,” King told The Times that year. “I had to ask: ‘Which one?’”
Andre Cherry later accompanied his brother’s body home to Imperial.
William M. Harrell, 30
Kelli Harrell saw something different in Marine Staff Sgt. William M. Harrell when the young man she had known since age 5 returned to their Placentia neighborhood after boot camp.
“I realized that he wasn’t a boy anymore; he was a man,” she told The Times in 2004. “We were soul mates. and we knew it from the very beginning.”
Harrell graduated from Placentia’s El Dorado High School in June 1992 and joined the Marines five months later.
He was killed during a gun battle in Anbar province. When it came time to break the news to their 7-year-old son, Austin, Kelli Harrell said his father had been shot.
Couldn’t somebody help his dad? the boy asked.
He’s with God, she said.
Joshua M. Palmer, 25
Joshua M. Palmer displayed his love of learning started at an early age. When he was 7, he made this observation as he and his mother drove past an elementary school: “Look at all those parents who are allowing their kids to play soccer. Don’t you know it’s destroying their brains?”
But he also was an athlete. At Banning High School he was a lineman on the football team. He went on to earn a degree in international relations at the University of San Diego.
Palmer was killed in a firefight in Iraq’s Anbar province. His mother, Jackie Palmer, said in a 2004 interview that military officials told her that Palmer was shot while leading his platoon on a mission to take out three snipers. American troops eventually killed one sniper and captured the other two.
One of his childhood friends, Dominic Persechini, said Palmer had deep-seated belief that the military had a benevolent purpose in the development of countries.
One of Palmer’s favorite books — out of a large collection he treasured — was “Starship Troopers,” a novel that touches on the positive function of armed forces in society. “He was a great student of history and he thought that it was warriors that make countries strong and prosperous,” Persechini said.
Eric A. Ayon, 26
After graduating from Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, Eric A. Ayon married his high school sweetheart, Angie Vasquez. When their son was born, Ayon put his dream of joining the Marines on hold.
“He was determined to go to the Marines, but he waited until his son was old enough so he would remember his father in case something ever happened to him,” Cynthia Ayon told The Times in 2004.
Meanwhile, Ayon discovered another passion — mentoring wayward teenagers at Mid-Valley Community Day School in Van Nuys. Day after day, he would spend hours talking troubled teens out of gangs.
He had been in Iraq just seven weeks when he was killed in a battle in Anbar province. His funeral attracted 400 mourners. Among them was Ayon’s favorite musical artist, corrido singer Lupillo Rivera, who sang several of Ayon’s favorite ballads before removing his cowboy hat and tie and placing them atop Ayon’s casket.
“He was a fan of mine,” Rivera said afterward, “but what he didn’t know is I was a fan of his as well.”
Oscar Jimenez, 34
Oscar Jimenez participated in the first U.S. invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, and the San Diego resident returned as coalition forces deposed Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, for the third time, he was deployed to Iraq as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
On Easter Sunday, Jimenez was commanding a seven-vehicle convoy near the edge of Fallouja in Anbar province. A small girl led a herd of cattle across the highway in front of the Marine vehicles. As the convoy slowed, dozens of gunmen opened fire from behind the tall grass and surrounding buildings.
Jimenez was shot in the leg. He radioed a warning to the other Marines in his convoy. “Hurry up. We got to get out of here,” he said, according to Associated Press. As Marines launched a fierce counterattack and pushed the convoy ahead, Jimenez, 34, a father of three, was shot in the head and killed.
The first lieutenant wanted to be a Marine since he was a boy.
“Oscar had the perfect balance in life,” said Ben Soto, his brother-in-law. “He worked hard, he was devoted to his family and he still made time for his friends.”
George D. Torres, 23
Family members described George D. Torres as the type who couldn’t sit still for very long. “He was a party boy,” recalled his aunt, Anna Garcia, who said he appeared happiest when cruising with friends in his black Honda Civic or flying to Mexico to visit friends.
But Torres had higher aspirations. After dropping out of Millikan High School, he earned his high school diploma from Long Beach School for Adults so he could enlist in the Marines.
His family did not want him to join the military, however. His mother had persuaded another brother, Francisco, to stay out of the military years before, but could not sway George.
“Whatever he put his mind to, he would do,” Garcia told The Times in 2004. “He had resolve.”
Torres had been in Iraq less than two months when he was killed in Anbar province. When he enlisted, Torres told his family that, if anything happened to him, he wanted them to use his benefits to finally buy a house.
Brad S. Shuder, 21
Brad S. Shuder decided to enlist in the Marines right after Sept. 11. “He wanted to serve the country in support of freedom and bringing terror to an end, and that was his mission,” Father G. Michael Bugarin, Shuder’s godfather, told The Times in 2004.
In the service, Shuder formed a friendship with Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a Guatemala native. Shuder, who was adopted from Korea when he was 22 months old, shared Gutierrez’s desire to give something back to his adopted country.
In an interview with The Times in 2003, Shuder recalled a moment with Gutierrez on a starry night in Kuwait just hours before the start of the war. “We didn’t say much,” Shuder said. “We just stood there looking at the sky, not knowing what was to come, but we knew it was going to be OK.”
On the first day of fighting, Gutierrez was killed by “friendly fire.” Gutierrez had been a gifted artist, and Shuder later took the image of a rose that Gutierrez had drawn and had it tattooed on an arm along with the words “killed in action.”
Shuder was killed in combat in Anbar province on his second deployment to Iraq.
Victor A. Rosales Lomeli, 29
Victor A. Rosales Lomeli and his wife, Sgt. Sandra Rosales, both served with the Army in Iraq while relatives cared for their infant son, Victor.
“He was proud to be a soldier, I am proud to be a soldier and hopefully one day, my son will be a soldier too,” Sandra Rosales told the Associated Press.
Before deploying to Iraq, Rosales had been based in Vilseck, Germany. He was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated.
Rosales was born in Mexico City, and he and his wife became citizens during their service. According to The Times database on Californians killed in the war on terror, he was among 85 service members born outside the United States. The largest number, 35, came from Mexico.
Rosales joined the Army in 1995. He was regarded as a tough infantryman but he also was known for being both warm and professional with other soldiers.
Jimmy J. Arroyave, 30
Like Victor A. Rosales Lomeli, who died two days earlier, Jimmy J. Arroyave was born outside the United States. He came from Cali, Colombia, and his family moved to California when he was a child.
Arroyave was known for his love of soccer, physical fitness, the Sacramento Kings and national parks. In fact, military officials said, he carried his National Parks Passport with him on various vacations he took with his wife and young daughters.
His wife, Rachelle — his high school sweetheart — was expecting the couple’s third child when he was killed in a noncombat-related accident in Ramadi.
He planned to serve in the Marines for 20 years.
Fourteen years after his death, Marine Sgt. Brian Ramirez wrote on a memorial page, “I still remember the day we lost you. That convoy... I’m probably one of the last Marines that spoke to you. May you rest in peace. Every Memorial Day since then, I think about you, Staff Sargent.”
Brian M. Wood, 21
Brian M. Wood had been a good student and could have gone to college, but he decided during his sophomore year at West Torrance High School that he would join the Army after graduation.
He was inspired by his father and three uncles, all military veterans.
“It is a family tradition of serving our country and giving back,” his father, Greg Wood, told The Times in 2004. “Bryan was a patriot, a very strong lover of his country and what it stood for, and that was one of the things that he felt that he should do.”
Wood was killed when his military vehicle struck a land mine in Tikrit.
His family and friends described Wood as a considerate young man who worried about other people more than himself. “He never told us that he was going to be defusing land mines,” said childhood friend Kevin McDonald. “He didn’t want us worrying.”
Richard J. Gannon II, 31
Richard J. Gannon II attended Cornell University, graduating with a double major of political science and history. He took advanced leadership training at the Naval Academy, and was commissioned a Marine officer in 1995.
His father, Richard Gannon Sr., a Marine who fought in the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, “was not anxious to see any of my children join the military.” Still, he was proud when his son became a Marine.
Gannon Jr. was one of four Marines killed in a firefight in Iraq’s Anbar province.
He was known for his toughness and his father recounted a scene from his son’s youth.
When the elder Gannon pulled a hamstring with six miles to go in a marathon they were running, “he looked at me like I was betraying him,” his father recalled. “This wasn’t what we trained for.”
The younger Gannon, just 9, ran on. A police officer who tried to get him to stop told his father: “You must be so proud of that kid — he’s running on pure guts.”
Christopher A. Gibson
A lifelong resident of Simi Valley, Christopher A. Gibson was a 1999 graduate of Simi Valley High School and married his high school sweetheart a year later.
The couple lived on the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, and the younger of their two children was born while Gibson was overseas during his first deployment.
He was on his second deployment to Iraq when he was among Marines ambushed by insurgents outside their base near the Syrian border. He died while his unit was escorting a convoy near Qaim.
“The grief is deep and it’s overwhelming at times,” his mother, Terri Bowen, told The Times in 2004. “But I know he believed in what he was doing, and he gave it all for his country. I praise the Lord for that.”
Leroy Harris Kelly III,
Leroy Harris Kelly III spent most of his four years at Azusa High School living up to his reputation as the class clown. With a broad smile and quick wit, the popular athlete and musician easily charmed classmates, teachers and coaches.
But after he enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating in June 2001, Harris Kelly’s devil-may-care life turned serious as the Iraq war brought him face to face with fear, sacrifice and, ultimately, death.
Harris Kelly, 20, was in a convoy of military vehicles when his truck swerved to avoid hitting another vehicle during a sandstorm, went off the road and rolled over north of Tallil, Iraq, military officials said.
Harris Kelly, who earlier had been stationed in Germany, died of chest injuries suffered in the crash.
“He was about to come home,” said his father, Leroy Harris Jr. “He was driving to Kuwait, where he was going to leave for Germany when he got into the accident.”
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Patrick Tillman walked away from a three-year, $3.6-million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals to become a Ranger in 2002, along with his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player.
Although the Army knew almost immediately that he had been killed in a “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan, it took the service more than a month to inform his family. Tillman’s father later called the investigation a lie and “insulting to Pat.”
When he enlisted, Tillman was living in Arizona, where he went to college and played professional ball, but he was raised in San Jose where he attend Leland High School.
In an interview after the Sept. 11 attacks but before he enlisted, he said, “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. A lot of my family has done far more. I really haven’t done a damn thing as laying my butt on the line like that, so I have a great deal of respect for those that have, and what our flag stands for.”
Abraham D. Peña Medina,
After Abraham D. Peña Medina was killed when his patrol came under sniper fire in Baghdad, friends recalled that he long wanted to join the military.
“When most of us in high school talked about going to college, he would say that he joined the ARMY. He even missed getting his high school diploma with all of us because he left for Basic Training a day before graduation,” Army Staff Sgt. Raul Carmona wrote on a memorial page.
He also was remembered by friends as a cheerful man quick to laugh. He loved country-western dancing, and his tombstone at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, includes the words, “A COWBOY RIDES AWAY.”
Peña Medina was survived by a wife and child. Nine years after his death, his father-in-law, Jorge Bustamante, wrote on a memorial page:
“He and I were great friends. He would call me Dad and I son. We ate lunch together about about 3 times a week when I was still in the Military.... I still miss him and it was an honor to have had him as my son-in-law for just a couple of years that he and my daughter were married. From a cowboy to a cowboy, we will never forget you, son, you are always thought of.”
Adam W. Estep,
When Adam W. Estep first asked his childhood sweetheart Demara Miller to marry him, she declined. It was 2003 and he was stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, while she attended UC Santa Barbara. She was not ready for a long-distance marriage.
Then in February of 2004, when she learned that Estep would be deployed to Iraq in mid-March, the thought of marriage resurfaced. “We should get married,” Estep kidded with her. This time she said yes.
A week later, on Feb. 28, they were married in a ceremony held in the backyard of a friend’s home in San Jose.
“After he came back from the Army, I saw so many characteristics,” Demara Miller Estep told The Times in 2004. “He had so much potential to be this wonderful man. I came to the realization that I might never have a chance to do that with him if I were to wait.”
Two months later, Estep was killed in Baghdad when his patrol vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
James L. Beckstrand,
James L. Beckstrand tried to tell his family and friends about life in Iraq via email, but the missives were short and infrequent. The reason, he said: “You know, 50 computers for 10,000 soldiers.”
His last email home had read, “Miss you all. Love you. Hope to see you again.”
He was killed near Mahmoudiya, Iraq, when a driver in a station wagon detonated a car bomb near his unit.
As with many service members killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere after Sept. 11, friends and family left notes about him on online memorial pages, often years after his death. In 2006, a writer identifying himself as “SGT Francisco” wrote on one memorial page:
“Two years now brother....still in my mind...everyday....thinking of you down here...watchin us from up there...memory’s gonna be always in my heart.”
On another page, “Doc” wrote, “I still remember the day you died. I still grieve for you and your family. You are a Hero. I was part of Task Force Iron Claw. You were securing me that day. Thank you.” He posted the comments in 2012, eight years after Beckstrand was killed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.