Saddened Town Adds Name to Monument Honoring War Dead

Times Staff Writer

This grief-stricken San Joaquin Valley farm town Wednesday added a new name and a new conflict to the old stone memorial that honors its dead sons from two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

More than 500 people poured into the whitewashed, cinderblock St. Jude Catholic Church here on a crisp, clear, fall day to mourn the first Livingston daughter killed in a foreign military campaign.

Later, as members of the soldier's family cried and huddled together at a cemetery in nearby Turlock, a senior Army officer announced that Pfc. Karina Lau had been posthumously awarded a medal for valor, the Bronze Star.

The medal did little to console Lau's distraught mother, Ruth, who began to wail, "Karina! Karina! Karina!"

Another female relative fainted.

Pfc. Lau, 20, a talented musician and high school honor student, died Nov. 2 in Iraq with 15 other soldiers when a transport helicopter, taking them to the Baghdad Airport for home leave in the United States, was struck by a shoulder-fired missile.

Lau didn't tell her parents she would be returning home from Iraq on leave; she wanted to surprise them for her 21st birthday.

Lau's name, along with "Killed in action, Iraq," joins those of 38 servicemen listed on the memorial in a corner of a city park.

As the casualties slowly mount in Iraq and the dead trickle home, the impact is beginning to be felt in towns across America. Wednesday was Livingston's turn.

Townspeople -- co-workers of Lau's parents from nearby packing plants, schoolmates who performed with her in the Livingston High marching band, former teachers -- gathered in the church as Father Harvey Fonseca spoke of the young soldier's tragic trip home in a coffin.

Katy Mendoza, 59, came to the service still wearing the red smock from the peach cannery where she works with Ruth Lau. "She is such a nice lady," Mendoza said of the mother, "who talked always about her daughter and how she could sing and play music."

"Imagine the person who shot down the helicopter," Fonseca said. "If he knew who Karina was, he could never have fired the missile."

Most people spoke of Lau's unrealized potential: a bright young woman who had joined the Army on a whim and died before she could realize her dream of becoming a music teacher. Adept at math and science, Lau served as a network switching systems operator with the Army's 16th Signal Battalion out of Ft. Hood, Texas.

Teacher Jack West, a retired Air Force officer who taught Lau in the fourth grade, recalled her as "my best student."

Lau's father, Augustin, is ethnically Chinese, and her mother is Mexican. However, both parents were born in Mexico, and Spanish is their first language. West said Karina Lau came into the class speaking mostly Spanish but by the end of the year was registering the highest scores on English tests.

Brother-in-law Noel Rivera, 32, who read a poem at the ceremony, recalled Lau as a brilliant, animated teenager who loved tuna and alternative rock.

Having mastered several instruments, Rivera said, Lau won a music scholarship to the University of the Pacific, which she attended for only two months before dropping out to join the Army.

Brother Luis Lau, 30, worried that it may have been his example that caused Karina to leave college and join the Army. Luis Lau, a Navy chief petty officer, is a nuclear propulsion engineer on the aircraft carrier Enterprise.

"I think she was trying to follow in my footsteps," he said, puffing a cigarette in the driveway of the family's modest stucco home.

Mayor Gurpal Samra recalled Lau as a talented singer who sang the National Anthem at her 2001 high school graduation and performed at other public meetings.

"I can never listen to the news the same way again," said Samra, a member of the large Punjabi Sikh community here.

"Before we heard about Karina, the reports from Iraq were all numbers and names with no faces. Now one of the names has a face from here in our very own Livingston."

Most of the people in the working-class Merced County town of more than 11,000 have jobs in the nearby Foster Farms chicken-processing plants, the Gallo Winery or the other large food-processing facilities that flank California Highway 99.

The jobs and other agricultural opportunities have attracted one of the state's most diverse populations.

Several churches hold services in Portuguese, catering to that group of immigrants. Mennonites have three congregations surrounding Livingston and a school that goes through the 10th grade. Punjabi Sikhs operate three temples, called gurdwaras, here.

As in many valley towns, Spanish is the dominant language of the streets. About 65% of Livingston's population is Latino. St. Jude's, with attached parochial school, has 8,000 members, most of them Latino.

Looking at the mourners in his church Wednesday, Fonseca, a descendant of Portuguese immigrants, marveled at what he saw as the cohesion of his town compared to the violent chaos that brought down Karina Lau.

"Every region in the world is represented in this church," the priest said. "So many nationalities. So many faiths. What a beautiful example Livingston could be for the world to live in harmony."

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