'My Son Was Not Going to Let Someone Else Die in His Place'

Times Staff Writer

EXETER, Calif. — A little over two months ago, Spc. Daniel Unger was among several hundred California National Guard soldiers assembled at an Army desert training post outside Barstow to hear Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger send them off to battle in Iraq with a rousing speech on patriotism and valor.

"You guys are the true terminators," Schwarzenegger told the cheering soldiers, the first National Guardsmen from California since the Korean War to be sent overseas in a combat capacity.

On Wednesday morning here in this orange-growing Central Valley farming town, Army officials informed Daniel Unger's parents that their 19-year-old son had been killed in Iraq, the first member of a California National Guard combat unit to die in action.

"I was at a friend's house," said Daniel's mother, Lynda Unger, 53. "My husband called and said, 'Come home. Just come home.' When he opened the door he was crying and I saw the chaplain and the other officers, and of course I knew it was Danny."

Unger, a center fielder on his high school baseball team who worked as a missionary in youth prisons, died Monday during an apparent mortar attack on his base 25 miles south of Baghdad. The attack also wounded 10 other reservists, including eight men from Unger's 1-185th Combat Group, headquartered in San Bernardino.

Unger's death was confirmed Wednesday by California National Guard media relations chief Maj. Denise Varner. By late Wednesday, the military had not yet released any information about the names and conditions of the wounded soldiers.

Once the news of the soldier's death began to spread along the quiet streets here, friends poured into the modest, pale-blue stucco home to console the soldier's parents, 17-year-old brother and 11- and 13-year-old sisters.

The van in the family driveway bore a bumper sticker: "Proud Parents of an Army National Guard Soldier." Carport posts were festooned with yellow ribbons and a large American flag flapped in the light breeze while two big German shepherds in the backyard barked at arriving mourners.

The father, Marc Unger, a storefront Southern Baptist pastor and karate instructor, alternated between fits of deep booming sobs and quiet periods of philosophical acceptance.

"I remember driving down [Highway] 198 talking with him about the dangers of war," recalled his father, a bearish figure who holds a sixth-degree karate black belt.

"Danny turned to me and said: 'Dad, I love Jesus and I know God has a plan for my life. If his plan is for me on Earth I know that there is no terrorist and no enemy who can take me out."

No matter how deep their grief, both parents said their support for the campaign in Iraq, like that of their son, is unflagging. "He loved what he did and was very proud of serving," said Lynda Unger. "I want everyone to know that. No misquotes! He believes in what he was doing. He was glad to be there."

Marc Unger picked up a Bush-Cheney campaign poster from a nearby table.

"We support our president. We support our military," he said, waving the poster. "I'm terribly sorry that it was my son who lost his life as a hero in the service of his country. But someone's life is going to be lost and my son was not going to let someone else die in his place. My son honestly felt before God that God wanted him to join the military."

After getting his parents' permission, Daniel Unger joined the California National Guard at the beginning of his senior year in high school. He went to boot camp at Ft. Benning, Ga., two days after graduation. Before leaving for Iraq in late March, he stopped by his alma mater, Exeter Union High School, in his Army fatigues to say goodbye to his friends, teachers and his baseball coach.

"He was one of the only students I ever met who knew exactly what he wanted to do in life and was doing it," said coach Steve Garver, who also taught Unger in English courses. "He felt that he had been called by God. He was a fine young man."

Said Exeter Police Lt. Cliff Bush, a family friend: "Danny avoided all the drugs and other issues that plague other kids his age. He was mature from the age of 12."

The California soldiers involved in the Monday night incident are part of a massive rotation in Iraq in which regular Army forces are being replaced by reservists and National Guard troops. The California 1-185th Combat Group is part of the 81st Brigade, headquartered in Ft. Lewis, Wash. Unger was attached to Alpha Company, based in Corona.

Unger was the fifth California National Guard soldier killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The other soldiers who died were serving in noncombat support companies — transportation, military police and intelligence units.

Since the major rotation of reservists for regular Army troops began this spring, some National Guard units have suffered significant casualties. The Arkansas 39th Brigade, which patrols Baghdad streets, has lost eight soldiers in less than two months.

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