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Nonprofit Reaches Out to Children of the Slain

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Times Staff Writer

It was to be a wonderful Father’s Day for Jorge Gonzalez, an opportunity for the U.S. Marine to make up for lost time with his 3-month-old son, born while he was fighting in Iraq.

Instead, his family in Rialto will travel to San Diego to visit the Marine’s grave.

“If it were a fast war, he said he’d be home by late May,” said his widow, Jasty Gonzalez. “Since we’re first-time parents, both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day would have been big celebrations. I was planning to make Father’s Day really special.”

In hopes of helping people such as Jasty Gonzalez and her son, software company owner Dan O’Dowd has started the nonprofit group Fallen Heroes Last Wish Foundation to raise money for the children of U.S. armed forces members who died in the recent Iraq war.

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The foundation was started with $100,000 of O’Dowd’s own money, and he has promised to match all contributions until the first $500,000 is raised. The group will give each child $5,000 with no strings attached.

“We can offer our condolences, but that’s really not enough,” O’Dowd said in an interview from his Santa Barbara office. “Each of us has paid a cost for the war, but that’s not what it cost [the families of slain Americans]. It’s a huge emotional loss, but also a huge financial loss. These are the ones who are losing the most.”

The way O’Dowd sees it, his foundation has nothing to do with the political question of whether the United States should have invaded Iraq. He believes that people on both sides of the debate should contribute to help those who lost a parent.

“For those who supported the war, they have some responsibility. The troops went on their behest. For those who were against the war, what better way to support the troops? It’s a way to say, ‘I support the country and support the troops, but not the war,’ ” he said. “It’s the one thing about this conflict that everyone should be able to agree on: that these kids shouldn’t have to bear the burden.”

O’Dowd was 17 when the Vietnam War ended, so his draft number was not called. After high school, he went to college and started his business, never serving in the military. While he can’t relate to the families in terms of their military lifestyle, he is a father of two young sons and knows that his dying wish would be to make sure his children were secure.

“What would that person have asked for? ‘Skip the medal. Skip the parade. Take care of my kids.’ That’s the one thing they would all want. If people want to show their gratitude, then give them what they would have wanted,” he said.

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The foundation has $180,000 -- enough for 36 children -- which includes $40,000 from public donations, $40,000 in matching funds from O’Dowd and the initial $100,000. Six children from four families have received a $5,000 check, and the foundation is currently working with another 20 families. O’Dowd’s wife, Amy, along with the wives of two of his employees, are handling the paperwork, with all expenses being covered by O’Dowd.

To find the families, the foundation, whose Web address is www.lastwishfoundation.org, works in conjunction with aid organizations and the military.

It was a Marine casualty officer in California who told Jasty Gonzalez, 25, about the foundation after she moved to Rialto from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where her 20-year-old husband was stationed. Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez, one of 183 American service members to die so far in the Iraq war, was killed March 23 near Nasiriyah during the first week of combat. His buddies told her that Gonzalez saw the photos she sent of their only child, Alonso, born 20 days before Gonzalez died.

Jasty Gonzalez received $250,000 from her husband’s military life insurance policy and will be receiving monthly government checks. In addition to the government assistance, Gonzalez said she was “really touched” to learn that people were reaching out to help.

“I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting all this support,” said Gonzalez, who recently began studying to become a registered nurse while working part-time as an office clerk. “I’m glad because when my son grows up, I can tell him that a lot of people cared and that his father was a hero.”

Her son also has received $2,000 from a credit union in Arrowhead.

“The donations we get are really for my son,” she said. “That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. It’s what my husband would have wanted.”

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The family of 33-year-old Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, who died March 27 in Iraq, was grateful for the $5,000 the foundation gave his 3-year-old son Joshua. The money will be added to other donations and put aside for the boy’s education.

“It means a lot to know people want to help the families of the fallen soldiers,” said Menusa’s wife Stacy, 31, of Santa Maria.

The idea of raising money for these children is “commendable,” said Beverly Fitzgerald, director of public and congressional affairs for the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Health Care System.

“We need more people in life like that, who look at what they can do for the public, not just what they can do for themselves,” said Fitzgerald.

O’Dowd hopes that his efforts will inspire corporations and individuals to help the grieving children. In April, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban formed the Fallen Patriot Fund, which benefits the families of killed and seriously injured service members, promising to match up to $1 million in total contributions.

“Our hope is that this will encourage others to help,” O’Dowd said. “That would be a huge victory.”

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