When Pedro Barboza Flores walked into the Glendale recruiting office to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps two summers ago, he received a discouraging reply. At 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds he was too heavy, older than most at 25, and he needed to finish high school. Staff Sgt. James Anderson thought he'd never see him again.
But days later he was back. He had enrolled in GED courses to earn a diploma and started weekly training with the Marines.
"My fellow Marines often kid me about how he was his own recruiter," Anderson said. "He was the one who gave me calls, gave me weekly updates on how things were going."
For Barboza Flores, becoming a Marine was not only a lifestyle transformation, but the realization of a childhood dream. He loved war stories and had always spoken about joining what he believed was the toughest military branch, his family said.
The move was a departure from a difficult past. Over the years he had floated through life. He dropped out of Hoover High School and worked at Sears and McDonald's. While his four siblings went to college and began careers, he fell into a funk, hung out with the wrong crowd and experimented with drugs, friends and family said.
Finally, his family intervened, telling him that he needed to turn his life around. Determined to do so, he revisited an old dream.
Within a year, Barboza Flores lost more than 50 pounds, gave up alcohol and stopped eating out and drinking daily six-packs of soda. He began regularly jogging four to five miles around Griffith Park.
He was accepted into the Marine Corps in March 2008, and after boot camp and more training at Camp Pendleton and his base in North Carolina, he happily volunteered to deploy 30 days early, in May, to make preparations. Despite their worries, his relatives embraced the excitement he had for his new life.
"We couldn't show we were scared," said Aurora Alamillo, his sister and a math teacher at Glendale High School. "He was almost riding on a high because he had accomplished something he thought he couldn't do before. We didn't want to burst his bubble."
Barboza Flores was born in Durango, Mexico. At age 2, he moved with his family from Zacatecas to Los Angeles. When he was 12, his family moved to Glendale.
Barboza Flores was a mellow and light-spirited guy, who carried around a sketchbook everywhere he went, loved to collect comic books and play action video games, especially "Metal Gear Solid." He enjoyed science fiction and history books. And once his new diet kicked in, he couldn't get enough of grilled salmon. He had planned to wait until 30 to have a family, and wanted to join the police force after military duty, his sisters said.
To friends and family, he was always dependable and loyal, and enjoyed playful banter. The second-youngest, Barboza Flores was very close to his family, but especially to his younger sister, Lizet.
"I still picture him, kind of, being in Afghanistan," she said, pausing as she was overwhelmed with tears Friday while at the cemetery. "He should be deployed during this time. For me he's still there, and it hasn't really happened. But when I actually think about it, look at pictures . . . it just kills me to know that I won't share these moments with him again. We won't just sit around and talk and laugh, just be brother and sister."
Lizet Barboza Flores, 24, visits his grave at Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks in Glendale two to three times a week. In Utah, where his parents moved a few years ago, neighbors planted a tree and put up a plaque as a memorial at a nearby park so that his parents can visit something tangible to remember their son. They go to the memorial daily.
His mother, Aurora Flores, 60, sobbed uncontrollably as she spoke of her loss. She said she hasn't been able to sleep at night, and she relives the moment when the Marines took off their caps, gave her a flag, and told her that her son was dead.
"He, for me, was my life. . . . My kids are my life. It's the only reason to live," Flores said. "And every night I ask 'Why? Why did this happen to my son?' "