Three men in uniform knocked on Simona Garibay's door in Costa Mesa early Monday, walking past U.S. and Mexican flags proudly planted in her front lawn.
At first she was mystified that these strangers were asking for her by name.
"I didn't know who they were," she said, too upset to say much more. "Then they told me the horrible news."
Her 21-year-old son, Marine Cpl. Jose Angel Garibay, had been killed in combat in Iraq, the Marines told family members. Late Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that Garibay was one of seven Marines killed in action Sunday near Nasiriyah, Iraq, in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date.
Also killed were Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, of Los Angeles; Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, 31, of Ventura; Lance Cpl. David K. Fribley, 26, of Lee, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Jordan, 42, of Brazoria, Texas; 2nd Lt. Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., 31, of Nye, Nev.; and Lance Cpl. Thomas J. Slocum, age unknown, of Adams, Colo. No further details were released late Monday night.
Garibay, a stocky former football player from Newport Harbor High School, joined the Marines three years ago, right after graduation, handling missiles and mortars for a weapons platoon. He was shipped out to the Middle East three months ago.
The Marine, whose family moved to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, when he was a baby, is the first Orange County serviceman to be killed in combat.
He wrote to this mother often and sent money home almost every month, family members said. In his last letter, which arrived from Kuwait on March 11, he asked for a package of his favorite Mexican candies and a CD of popular ranchera singer Vicente Fernandez.
Until that day, his mother, a housekeeper at a Costa Mesa hospital, was unaware that he had been shipped out to the Middle East. Garibay didn't want her to know. In his letter, she said, he desperately tried to keep her at ease.
"Mom, may God bless you, and don't worry about me. I'll be OK," he wrote in Spanish.
He was much more candid with his uncle, Urbano Garibay, a man the young Marine regarded as a surrogate father, since his natural father still lives in Mexico. In a tape recording he left at his uncle's home before being deployed in January, Jose poured out his fears about what lay ahead for him in the Middle East.
Garibay said his goodbyes.
"I'm being called to represent and serve my country. I am being asked to serve my country," Urbano Garibay recalled hearing on the recording. "I don't know if I will return, and I want you to know that I love you and how much I appreciate the support and love you have given me over the years."
On Monday night, Jose Garibay's mother and family were gathering in the living room of her modest ranch house on a quiet Costa Mesa cul-de-sac. They huddled around a small altar in the living room: a picture of the Virgin Mary, roses, four candles, a picture of Garibay from boot camp -- wearing a serious look and his Marine Corps dress blues. In Spanish, they quietly said a rosary.
"We don't know anything about how he died," his uncle said. "The only thing we've been told is that he was killed in combat, but we don't know any details."
Jose Garibay, a legal U.S. resident since he was a year old, wanted to become a police officer when his enlistment was up in 2004. He wanted to buy a house.
His younger brother and sister live in Orange County, and two older brothers live in Mexico. Garibay's cousin also is a Marine.
On Monday night, word of Garibay's death -- first reported by KMEX-TV Channel 34 in Los Angeles -- came as a blow to one of his favorite high school teachers, Janis Toman.
She had received a letter from him just hours before. Toman was in the middle of preparing a "goodie package" of snacks for him.
"I want to defend the country I plan to become a citizen of," he wrote to her, and described his delight when he and the other troops received a steak dinner, Pepsi and ice cream recently. He sent her photos from the desert and described life in a 20-man tent.
Toman tutored Garibay on a variety of subjects for more than two years. She said he had gone into the military "to make a better life for himself."
Garibay's former football coach, Mike Bargas, said Garibay was proud to serve his country and frequently visited his old school in military uniform.
"He wasn't a starter on the team, but he appreciated the camaraderie. He knew he was a part of the program. He understood what that meant," Bargas said Monday night.
"The work ethic helped when he got to the military, and he thanked us," he said. "He understood the life lessons we were trying to offer."
Blair Jones, one of his teammates, described Garibay, an offensive and defense lineman, as a real team player, even when he wasn't on the field. And he was never shy about what he wanted to do.
"Everyone knew he wanted to go into the service," Jones said. "You don't think of this happening. You still see his smile."
Times staff writers Phil Willon, Zeke Minaya, Anna Gorman and John Hendren contributed to this report.