2 From State Die in Action
One was just 20, a U.S. Marine who as a boy loved guns and left his native Mexico so he could join the armed services. The other was born in the Philippines, a 33-year-old veteran of the first Gulf War who returned to the Middle East battlefields in February because he was convinced the younger guys in his platoon needed the guidance of an old hand.
The two Camp Pendleton-based Marines, Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar of Escondido and Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa of San Jose, were among those listed Sunday by the Department of Defense as killed in action in Iraq.
Officials also identified two California Marines, Pfc. Francisco A. MartinezFlores, 21, of Los Angeles, and Lance Cpl. Patrick T. O’Day, 20, of Sonoma, as missing in action.
MartinezFlores and O’Day were assigned to the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center based in Twentynine Palms. The two Marines, the first Californians to be listed as missing in action, were last seen while conducting convoy operations in the vicinity of the Euphrates River on March 25.
Sunday evening at the modest family home of MartinezFlores in unincorporated Los Angeles County near Duarte, a flag hung from the front porch and a yellow ribbon had been tied around a small tree.
Two men, one dressed in a beige military uniform and the other in Army fatigues, stood guard at the front door to protect the family’s privacy.
In Santa Rosa, O’Day’s mother, Angela O’Day, said she held little hope that her son was still alive, according to the Associated Press. She said Marine Corps officials told the family Friday that his tank apparently plunged off a bridge while crossing the Euphrates River. Patrick O’Day’s wife, Shauna, is expecting their first child in September.
“We just want everyone to know what a joyful person, a lovely person, we’ve lost,” his mother said.
Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar
Fernando Suarez del Solar moved his family to Escondido from Tijuana six years ago so that his son could fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a Marine.
Growing up, his son was all boy. In high school, he was always exercising. He enjoyed wrestling, especially with his cousins. For fun, he watched action movies.
“Ever since he was a kid he was always into guns,” Suarez said of his son.
He said three Marines arrived at the family’s apartment early Friday morning with the tragic news that Suarez had been killed in action Thursday while fighting with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. “Your son is a hero; he died on the battlefield,” one of them explained in Spanish.
News of Suarez’s death drew relatives from Mexico, Los Angeles County and San Diego.
His mother, Rosa, sequestered herself indoors while his two sisters, 22 and 17, wept outside on a patio.
“I feel so bad. He was the best brother,” said the youngest, Claudia Suarez.
Miguel Hernandez, a real estate agent who is also a cousin, said Suarez enjoyed joking around and listening to rap music and was a good student. He graduated from Valley High School in Escondido, where the American flag was lowered to half staff Friday in his honor.
Suarez could have gone to college, but he chose the military instead, Hernandez said.
Suarez’s best friend, 19-year-old Jose Ledesma of Tijuana, was devastated by the Marine’s death. The two had been friends since both were 3 years old.
“He was like a brother to me,” Ledesma, a print shop worker, said Sunday. “I just wanted him to come back as soon as possible. After hearing the news from there, I felt something bad was going to happen.”
Suarez had shipped out for Kuwait and then Jordan last year, but returned home for leave during Christmas and New Year’s. It was during this break that he and his girlfriend, Sayne, drove to Las Vegas and married.
Suarez leaves a 1-year-old son, Erick.
While Suarez was a legal resident, he was not a U.S. citizen, his father said. “He was proud of being Mexican,” said Fernando Suarez, who is a U.S. citizen and owns a small local newspaper.
The senior Suarez was angered by the news of his son’s death and does not agree with the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war.
“I feel both betrayed and proud,” Suarez said. “President Bush has not demonstrated to me or to thousands of other people that the war is justified.”
He wished, Suarez said, that his son had died for something other than “Bush’s oil.”
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa
For Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, the war provided the chance to show that he was the consummate Marine, a combat veteran who could lead the way.
On the night before he went to war, Menusa told his fearful wife, Stacy, why he had to go.
“He said he was in charge of these young kids and he was the only one who had ever seen combat,” said Stacy Menusa, 30. “He needed to be their guide.”
Stacy said her husband once told her that his job would be to secure oil fields. She said military officials have told her only that her husband was the victim of a gunshot wound Thursday.
Menusa, who left Camp Pendleton on Feb. 5 with the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, was the father of a 3-year-old son, Joshua.
Days before he left, Stacy Menusa said she broke down and confessed her fears. “I said, ‘Why does Saddam Hussein have to be so dumb and ruthless?’ I cried and cried. Joe just let me vent. He told me that everything was going to be all right, that he wouldn’t let anything keep him from coming home.”
Born in the Philippines, he came to the U.S. at age 10. He grew up in San Jose, where he graduated from Silver Creek High School in 1989.
Stacy said she met Menusa at a party in her hometown of Santa Maria in 1992. She came to know him as a capable father and husband whose heart had also been captured by the Marines. When the couple talked of his next assignment, Menusa said he wanted to be at the front leading Marines, not stuck behind a desk.
Lisa Dilullo, a friend of the couple, recalls the sense of foreboding she felt seeing Menusa leave for Iraq. “He was always so charismatic and he just knew what to say,” she recalled.
Even on the last time they would ever talk.
“I walked up to him and he was like, ‘Hey, girl.’ And I started crying and I told him ‘You better come back.’ I said ‘Don’t go get yourself killed now.’ ”
Menusa looked at her. “It’s not like that,” he said. “I’m gonna do my job and get out.”
Since his wife was informed on Friday of Menusa’s death, she says she has tried to explain to her son the toll of war.
But she didn’t think he understood until the other day when the boy told his young cousin: “My Daddy’s gone. He died in the war.”
In September, Menusa would have celebrated his 14th year in the Marine Corps. “He wanted to remain a Marine until they kicked him out,” his wife said. “He was a lifer. Quite literally now.”
Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, Bob Pool and Hector Becerra, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.