Of the U.S. Marines who died fighting on March 23 near Nasiriyah, Iraq, three -- Jorge Gonzalez, Michael Bitz and Randal Kent Rosacker -- were from California. Two were fathers, a third was a son who followed his father into the military. One was 31, settling into adulthood; the other two were barely 20. They left grieving parents, brothers, sisters and children -- including a set of twins and a 3-week-old baby who had never met their fathers.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but it did. Before the Marine Corps could deliver the solemn news, TV images beamed via satellite into the Rialto home of the Gonzalez family showed the body of their uniformed son being picked up by an Iraqi soldier and held up like a trophy to the camera.
"They were showing video of soldiers who died in combat," Rosa Gonzalez said, recounting the horror as she and her husband, Mario, watched the grim images from Arab network Al Jazeera being broadcast on Spanish-language Telemundo on Sunday morning.
"I said, poor muchachos, poor boys," Rosa Gonzalez said, looking at the tangle of bodies kept inside a building. Then an Iraqi soldier leaned down, grabbed one of the dead, turned him over and held him up for the camera.
The legs of Mario Gonzalez suddenly buckled, as he collapsed to the floor in shock.
"I saw his face," Rosa Gonzalez said. "I said to myself, 'Calm yourself, Rosa, it can't be.' "
Then the image vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The couple spent much of the rest of Sunday trying to reassure each other that they must be mistaken. It couldn't be their 20-year-old son, Jorge, their second-oldest, the father of an infant son.
"Our eyes saw it, but our hearts were hoping it wasn't so," Mario Gonzalez said. "Maybe it's not him," he told his wife over and over. "A lot of them look alike."
The couple did not share what they had seen with their five other children. And then, Monday morning, Marine officials appeared at the doorstep, confirming their worst fears.
"When they came to inform me," Rosa Gonzalez recounted, "I said, 'I already know.' "
KMEX-TV was the first to interview the Gonzalez family, and after the interview aired, a swarm of camera crews, radio and print journalists congregated at the blue stucco ranch house in Rialto, where family and friends gathered to mourn the young man who hoped to retire from the Marines in about a year and apply to become a policeman.
He told his family and friends he wanted to work in the toughest neighborhoods, to help clean them up.
Gonzalez, an avid soccer player, briefly attended Temple City High School and later graduated from El Monte High School, his family said, and immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was married to Jazty, 25, who gave birth to a son, Alonso, on March 3 at Camp Lejeune. The corporal had shipped out weeks earlier.
His last visit home was at Christmas. His sister Nancy, 15, said she was never, never affectionate with her brother, but had a bad feeling the day he was preparing to head East. "That day, I just hugged him and kissed him. I knew I had to do that."
Rosa Gonzalez did not want her son to join the armed forces, but he assured her: "Don't worry, mom. If I die a Marine, I'll die honored."
Proud of her son for fighting for his country, Rosa Gonzalez was angry at Telemundo for broadcasting the pictures of his body. "Television needs to take precautions," she said, "I don't want other mothers to go through this."
For their part, Telemundo news executives said they regretted broadcasting the video of dead American soldiers made by Iraqi TV. "Somebody made a mistake, and we're sorry," said Joe Peyronnin, Telemundo's executive vice president for news.
On Tuesday, after learning officially of her son's death, Rosa Gonzalez received a letter from him. Dated March 10, it is one last keepsake from the son she already knew was gone.
"If you can wait just a little, I'll see you in the summer," Jorge Gonzalez wrote, "if God wants it."
Sgt. Michael Bitz, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, 2nd Marine Division
In the last year, it looked as if Michael Bitz was on a track other men would envy.
He had renewed his vows with his wife, Janina, and the couple were expecting twins. A sergeant in the Marines, he loved his job so much that he reenlisted last fall. At 31, he was entering his prime -- a reckless, rootless kid turned responsible father of four and career military man.
On Tuesday, his mother reminisced about him as a single candle burned on the dining-room table in her Ventura home. In their last telephone call, he told his mom how much he loved her. In his last letter to her, he said he was her warrior.
Donna Bellman's home was awash in television crews and sympathetic neighbors. A wreath of red, white and blue ribbon hung on the door.
Bellman was tired and drawn but eager to talk about the son she would never again see and the month-old twins he never got to hold.
"Caleb and Taylor," she said, her voice trailing off. "He had to ship out about six weeks before they were born."
On Monday, Bellman was called home from her office job at a car-alarm company. Three officers from the naval base at Point Mugu stood at the doorway in uniform, the classic grouping for the worst possible news in wartime.
"He'd been overseas before, but this time, I just didn't have a good feeling," she said, her eyes brimming. "I always tried to picture him surrounded by a white light to protect him. But when it's your time, nothing's going to work."
Divorced when her son was young, Bellman was a single mother while son Michael grew up in Port Hueneme. He was always a daredevil, she said, climbing the highest rocks to dive into the shallowest pools he could find on family camping trips.
"The more dangerous, the better," Bellman recalled. "He scared me half to death."
As a boy, he was protector and confessor for his younger brother, Steven.
"You never saw one without the other," their mother said. "I used to get upset because Michael always talked for Steven, and I was trying to get Steven to talk for himself."
After graduating from Hueneme High School, Bitz drifted from job to job, rudderless. He tried studying to become a paramedic but didn't get far.
"He lacked conviction," his mother said. "He had no discipline or direction."
With her oldest son, Rob, doing well in the Navy, Bellman convinced Michael that it was time to take life more seriously with a stint in the Marines.
"He nearly broke down when he called me from boot camp a couple of times," she said. "But I encouraged him and he stuck it out."
At the commencement ceremony in 1995, he gave her a bone-crushing hug, filled with conviction. Marine-style, he continually called his mother "ma'am" and proceeded down his new path with enough forcefulness to make sergeant in the 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, 2nd Marine Division.
Along the way, he had a boy from his first marriage, Christian, who is now nearly 7 and lives with his mother. Two-year-old Joshua and the twins live with Janina on Bitz's home base of Camp Lejeune.
"At times he was very loving and at times he was very macho," she said. "But he was always 100% Marine."
Randal Kent Rosacker, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade
SAN DIEGO -- He was a rough-and-tumble athlete who loved the outdoors and playing war games with his cousins. From a young age, Randal Kent Rosacker knew he wanted to follow his father into the military.
So when the elder Rosacker saw the Marines approaching his home in Bremerton, Wash., he knew what the news would be.
"I had a good idea where my son was at," Rod Rosacker, command master chief on the U.S. submarine Alabama, said Tuesday. "When the Marines walked up to the front door, that pretty much answered it for me."
The younger Rosacker, who grew up in San Diego, knew at age 10 that he wanted to join the military. The father tried to discourage his son from enlisting immediately after high school, urging him to pursue his athletic talents in college instead.
"I tried talking him out of it, but he was too anxious. He didn't want to wait," said Rosacker, who has been in the Navy for 18 years and lives with his wife, Debra.
Born in Colorado, Randal Rosacker attended junior high and high school in San Diego. Growing up, he teased his two younger sisters often, but always watched out for them, said the youngest, 14-year-old Toni.
"He was very, very protective," she said. "And he would always be there if I needed to talk to him."
Rod Rosacker said his son was outgoing, making friends wherever he went and often being elected captain of sports teams. "He was big-hearted and always stuck up for the guys who got picked on," the elder Rosacker said. "And he did the best he could do at everything."
As a youth, Rosacker spent a few weeks each summer in Colorado with his grandparents and cousins, fishing, hunting and camping. Shawna Glynn, 17, said that her cousin used to pretend that he was in the military and that she and his younger sisters were his enemies.
"He would beat us up, we would go down crying and he would pick us up and tell us not to cry," she said. "He said he was going to make us tough. He sure did that."
But if anyone really messed with his relatives, Glynn said, Rosacker was right there to defend them.
Toni Rosacker said Tuesday that she and her sister Samantha, 21, were sad, but also proud of their brother. She said that the family had received several letters from Randal, some written on food packaging. "In his last letter, he just told us how much he loved us," she said.
The young Marine's grandmother, Patricia Rosacker, said her only grandson always wanted to be like his father. "Because his dad was in the military, he pretty much always knew that's what he wanted to do," Rosacker said from her home in Alamosa, Colo.
Rosacker said she has been watching the news continually since the war began and had been trying to track her grandson's whereabouts. Rosacker, 63, said her grandson died doing something he loved -- serving America. "He believed in what he was doing," she said.
His former baseball coach, Chris Herrin, said Rosacker's teammates could always count on him. "He was somebody who would give the other kids a kick in the butt when they needed it," Herrin said. "He was the kind of guy who you would want fighting for your country."
Rosacker married his high school sweetheart, Brooke, and the young couple moved to North Carolina, where he was stationed with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune. The couple separated about a year ago, family members said. They did not have children.
Times staff writers Kenneth R. Weiss, Sue Fox, Anna Gorman and Hector Becerra contributed to this report.