When Michael "Mikey" J. Palacio joined the Marine Corps in 2007 shortly after high school, he thanked his mother, who had signed him up for the Tustin Young Marines just a few years earlier. Discipline was a struggle, but he reveled in the tough training. He wanted to serve and hoped one day to become a police officer like his stepfather.
Cpl. Palacio, a military policeman, arrived in Okinawa in November 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan a year later. He was part of the Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. One of his jobs was to guard a new route while it was under construction.
Described as a quiet professional, he relished his role as a noncommissioned officer, commanders said. Though he was young, he was often put out in front of the construction team because of his courage and ability to lead.
"He was not afraid to take care of his fellow Marines, always giving a helping hand and expecting nothing in return," 1st Sgt. Timothy J. Schultz, Military Police Company first sergeant, said in a statement.
On March 29, 2012, Palacio died defending Route Tiffany in Afghanistan's Helmand province. He was 23. His support battalion, many of its members now bearing tattoos in his memory, have dedicated themselves to completing the route.
His service awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
After his death, his family said a stream of friends and Marines — whom Palacio called his brothers — called to say how thankful they were because Palacio always knew to just listen, to understand, to believe. Diego Mata, a friend and musician, recorded a song in Palacio's memory.
"You told me you wanted to hear my new release," Mata sings in the recording. "And now it's just so hard to say 'rest in peace' … As I write this, I'm still in disbelief ...."
Palacio grew up in El Modena, taking care of his mother, Lili Solorio, and grandmother, Maria, and inspiring others to be like him — kindhearted and determined. "Make things happen for yourself," he often reminded those he loved. "Life is too short to slow down."
His presence was likened to a light that never went out.
"I just miss everything about him," Solorio said. "I miss him hugging me, I miss his goofiness … It was almost impossible to take a serious picture with him."
Palacio always stayed in close contact with those he loved, even when he was thousands of miles away. He made a YouTube video for Solorio on Mother's Day and, whenever he had the chance, he texted his family to assure them he was safe. In letters, he liked writing about the children he met in Afghanistan. Too often, they were on their own. So he joked and played with them.
"It was his way of making their lives better," Solorio said. "It was his way with everyone in his life."
In his official military photo, Palacio's proud gaze is captured. At his service, it was this photo of Palacio that was on display for the more than 500 friends and family members who came to honor his memory.
"When I was a kid, my heroes were the Marines," Palacio had once said. "Never thought I'd become who I looked up to."
His mother and stepfather, his sister, Cherrie, who was his closest friend, and five other siblings wrote a final letter to Palacio expressing their love and pride.
"Mikey, everyday is difficult without you," they wrote. "To our Marine, our Hero … Your smile, laughter, kindness, courage and sacrifice will never be forgotten."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times