The day before he died, Jonathan Castro phoned his parents from Mosul, Iraq, saying that he couldn't talk long because he was exhausted from 18-hour days. The strain of being in a combat zone could be heard in his voice, but the 21-year-old Army specialist tried to be reassuring and upbeat.
"He sounded like he was ready to drop," said his mother, Vicki Castro of Corona. "He needed to take a shower and get some rest, but he just wanted to say 'hi' and tell us he loved us and that he wasn't going to die in a foreign country. We were so happy to hear from our son."
Eighteen hours later, on Dec. 21, Castro was killed when a suicide bomber attacked an Army dining tent. The blast killed 22 people, including 18 Americans, in the deadliest attack yet on a U.S. military installation in Iraq.
In his final call home, which lasted five to 10 minutes, Castro talked about the Christmas gifts he had received in the mail, including 7 pounds of sour "worm" candy that he jokingly told his mother "caused a little riot over here" because all his buddies wanted some.
"I asked him, 'Did you read my card?' " his mother recalled. "He said, 'Yes, but I had to suppress a chuckle.' " Castro had stuffed the unopened card in his pocket while taking an injured soldier to be X-rayed at the base hospital. He knew a sudden guffaw would be out of place among men suffering from serious battle wounds. The card read: "Don't you wish life was like a VCR and you could fast forward through all the bad parts?"
Though Castro felt an obligation to carry out his military duty, he questioned whether the U.S. had a legitimate reason for being in Iraq, his mother said. "My son was a proud soldier," she said. "He loved his country. He wasn't afraid to go into the battle zone."
But after being deployed to Iraq in October, he told his family that the military effort was inefficient and ineffective. "He told me the first time he called home, 'Mom, we're not going to be out of here for 10 years,' " Vicki Castro said, adding that she strongly believes more Americans should question the U.S. military presence there.
A lifelong resident of the Corona area, Castro was a clever and ambitious child who dreamed of being an engineer. At Centennial High School, where he graduated in 2001, he built an electric car from scratch and entered it in a three-day race in Portland, Ore. The school's Technical Education Club entered a second car.
Castro's car broke an axle during the race. Knowing he couldn't win, he fixed it and secretly hatched a plan for a Centennial victory. Castro steered his vehicle in front of competitors, slowing them enough to run down their batteries. "It worked and they won," his mother said, laughing. "He acted as the spoiler so his team could win."
Castro had wide-ranging interests. He reveled in the fast-paced thrills of mountain biking and would ride in the worst weather. In high school, he built an electric guitar. He bought an old Ford Thunderbird and had plans to rebuild it. He spent many hours riding horses in the mountains and was an avid beachgoer. "He wanted to learn about a lot of different things in life," his mother said. "He liked to test his limits."
With Castro's strong skills in computer-aided drafting and knack for building things, Vicki Castro and her husband, Jorge, a retired truck driver, offered to pay for their son to get an engineering degree.
"He said, 'No, Mom, I don't want you to pay for college. I'm going to join the Army and use the G.I. Bill,' " said Vicki Castro, a math teacher at Centennial High. He entered the military the summer after high school.
Castro's three-year enlistment was to have ended last June. Shortly beforehand, the Army notified him that his active service was being extended as part of a stop-loss program because new recruits were not enlisting in sufficient numbers.
His mother was on the Internet when she saw a news bulletin about the explosion in the Mosul mess hall. "I saw the tent and just knew my son was in that tent," she recalled. "I said, 'Please, let him only be hurt,' as the body count went up."
Castro was assigned to the 73rd Engineer Company, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
In addition to his parents, he is survived by seven half brothers. He was buried at Riverside National Cemetery.