Profiling California's war dead

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Nearly 500 Californians have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 58 were immigrants; more than 160 were parents and left behind more than 300 children. One descended from two presidents; another was a Guatemalan street orphan taken in by a U.S. family as a teenager. One high school lost six of its graduates.

The findings come from a detailed analysis by The Times.

At age 7, Victor H. Toledo-Pulido was smuggled from Mexico through rugged mountains into California. He and another soldier were killed in May 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle southeast of Baghdad.

"They judge us, and they say we just come to take their jobs and positions, but we also make sacrifices. Victor worked since he was little, in the fields and in restaurants," his mother, Maria Gaspar, said after the 22-year-old was killed. "He was Mexican, but he thought like an American. And he gave his life for this country."

Dozens more were the children of immigrants, including Bunny Long, 22, a Marine lance corporal whose parents came from Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned them for four years in a labor camp.

"This is our home," Sim Long said after his son was killed in March 2006 by a suicide car bomber in Fallouja, west of Baghdad. "I'm very proud that Bunny was able to give back to his country. Our country."

Some joined because serving in times of war was a family tradition -- one that sometimes went back as far as the American Revolution. Others entered the service to pay for college, to find a career, out of a sense of adventure or to do something with their young, intemperate energy. Many thought the military would give them the training needed to become police officers.

"I had my doubts about him and the Marines, knowing how my son rebelled against authority," said Ken Walker, the father of Marine Staff Sgt. Allan K. Walker, 28, of Lancaster, who was killed in April 2004 when his Humvee convoy was attacked in Iraq's Anbar province. "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."

Many joined out of some sense of duty born of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I'm ready to fight for my country," Marine Lance Cpl. Derek L. Gardner, 20, of San Juan Capistrano told The Times before he deployed to Iraq. He was among seven Marines killed in September 2004 when a bomb-laden vehicle was detonated near their convoy outside Fallouja.

"I don't want to just sit back and watch the casualty numbers climb on CNN," Kristofer D.S. Thomas told his family when he graduated from Roseville High a semester early so he could enlist at 17. "I need to do something to help out."

He was among eight troops killed in February 2007 when their CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter crashed in Afghanistan's Zabol province, south of Kabul.

Some communities have suffered disproportionate losses.

No high school has lost more young men -- six -- than Buchanan High in the Central Valley town of Clovis. Another Clovis soldier killed in Iraq went to Clovis High. The city's population is about 83,000.

The median age of those killed was 23. There were 402 casualties under age 30. Fifteen were older than 40.

At 52, Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Merideth L. Howard of Alameda was the oldest servicewoman killed in combat. She was one of two reservists killed in September 2006 when a car bomb exploded near their Humvee in Kabul, Afghanistan.

At least 38 were engaged; more than 200 were married.

"He saw his baby do his first steps. He was a real good father and a real good husband," Rebekah Reyes said of her husband, Army Spc. Daniel F. Reyes, 24, of San Diego. "He was always thinking about us. He called me every morning from Iraq."

Reyes was one of two soldiers killed in July 2007 when their unit was attacked with indirect fire -- a military term that usually refers to mortar or rocket fire -- in Tunis, Iraq, south of Baghdad.

The bulk of The Times' analysis is based on original reporting compiled since late 2001, including more than 420 obituaries written by Times staff writers. The findings were used to create a database that includes information including the service member's high school, marital status, number of children and place of burial. It also notes, when known, that a person was born outside of the U.S. or was a first-generation American.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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