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Army Sgt. Andres J. Contreras, 23, Huntington Park; Killed in Explosion

Times Staff Writer

Spurred by a strange feeling, Army Sgt. Andres J. Contreras turned to the gunner in his Humvee while on patrol in Baghdad on July 15 and insisted on switching seats.

When his commanding officer ordered him to stay put, Contreras said he couldn’t explain why, but he knew that he needed to be sitting in the gunner’s seat. His orders were coming from a higher source, he said.

Moments after he made the switch, a roadside bomb exploded and killed Contreras. The other soldier was bruised but alive.

When Contreras’ parents heard the story, they weren’t surprised to hear that he had died while saving another’s life. Their son had always put family first -- blood relations and the military.

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As an 11-year-old, Contreras took charge of his five younger brothers every day when his father left their Huntington Park home at 6 p.m. for his job as a security guard.

He changed diapers and helped his mother clean up after dinner. He chased his brothers into the bathroom in order to brush their teeth and tucked them in with bedtime stories.

It was the same in Iraq, where Contreras made a habit of putting the welfare of his fellow soldiers ahead of his own.

Contreras, 23, was assigned to the 519th Military Police Battalion, 1st Combat Support Brigade at Ft. Polk, La. He joined the Army in 2000 as a springboard to a career in law enforcement. The Bell High School graduate wanted to return home to become a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

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He had an impressive career for a young sergeant, according to his peers. In six years, he had trained three platoons and been deployed to South Korea; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Iraq.

On the field, Contreras was said to be attentive and meticulous with his gear. He hung around the shop after hours as Army mechanics repaired his squad’s battered and banged up vehicles.

“He wanted me to teach him what I could so that if small situations came up he could handle them himself. That’s not common. A lot of his peers would go home and leave the work to someone else,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ray Robidas, who runs the maintenance shop for military police vehicles at Ft. Polk.

Contreras was said to stay long into the night asking questions, often returning before sunrise the next morning to check his squad’s equipment again before training missions.

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Others took notice.

The commanding sergeant major of Contreras’ task force in Iraq chose the sergeant to be his personal escort -- an honor usually afforded to higher-ranking soldiers.

But Contreras had already earned perhaps the highest honor of all. Fellow servicemen called him a “soldier’s soldier” -- someone distinguished by his work ethic and selfless regard for others’ welfare above his own. There are no plaques, medals or badges that mark a soldier’s soldier.

“It’s a distinguished phrase you don’t just give to anyone,” said Robidas, who can recall no more than a dozen others who deserved the honorific in his 14 years of service. “It’s one of those things you earn. He definitely had it.”

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As word spread that Contreras had died, his fellow soldiers sent letters and filled online message boards with tributes.

“He left a family behind over there that we didn’t even know about,” said Contreras’ father, Jonathan.

Back home in Southern California, Contreras left behind a 4-year-old daughter, Grace. He doted on her, spending his few weeks at home taking her to Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland.

He would shower her with gifts -- lately she fancied Winnie the Pooh. Grace lives with her mother, Contreras’ former girlfriend.

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Contreras’ father said that he initially didn’t want his son, known at home as Junior, to join the military.

“I tried to get him to forget the Army. I’d give him choices, tell him, ‘You can go to law school or learn computers,’ ” he said. “But he said he still wanted to be a soldier.”

In the months before he died, Contreras had made a commitment to the Christian faith, with his parents’ encouragement. His parents believed that God was with their son when he died, said his aunt, Wendy Contreras of Lake Elsinore.

In addition to his daughter and father, Contreras is survived by his mother, Norma; and brothers Hernan, 22, Carlos, 15, Danny, 14, Noel, 12, and Caesar, 11.

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Contreras’ father choked back a sob as he read a tribute letter from his son’s commanding officer.

“I’m at ease with myself because he died for something he believed in,” Jonathan Contreras said. “He loved his soldiers so much. He had the option to do something else, but he wanted to be a platoon leader.”


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