A Funeral Instead of a Wedding

Times Staff Writers

New Year's Eve had seemed especially full of promise for Sgt. Marcelino Ronald "Ronnie" Corniel, a 23-year-old California National Guardsman stationed in Iraq: He and his comrades were scheduled to return home within days, and Corniel and his fiancee had talked by phone on the final day of 2005 about plans for their Jan. 23 wedding.

"I couldn't wait for him to come home," said Claudia Calderon, 24, who said the couple had talked about whom to invite to their wedding in Las Vegas and where to hold the ceremony.

But, just hours after that conversation about their future together, Corniel was killed in a mortar attack in Baghdad. The attack also wounded three others in his Fullerton-based unit of the Army National Guard -- Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment.

On Saturday, amid chilly breezes and gathering rain clouds, about 350 of Corniel's family, friends and fellow soldiers turned out for his military burial at a Covina Hills cemetery.

His mother, who, along with his grandmother, raised him and his sisters in a close-knit La Puente neighborhood, received the flag that had draped his coffin. His fiancee and two teenage sisters released white doves. Mourners heard the official posthumous awarding of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, the three-round gun salute, the mournful bugling of taps.

Last week, as they prepared for the graveside ceremony, relatives of the young solder, a musician devoted to the military, talked about what he had meant to them.

"I'll never celebrate another New Year's Eve," said his mother, Elaine Lopez.

She remembered another New Year's Eve -- in 1999 -- that captured her son's dedication to the two younger sisters who looked up to him as a father: Kristen Lopez, now 16, and Kimberly Lopez, 14. Instead of celebrating with friends, Corniel went with his mom and sisters to Shakey's Pizza, then to Kmart to buy the millennium version of Monopoly and shot glasses to toast with Sprite at midnight.

His mother also recalled the time he took his sisters to a father-daughter Girl Scouts luau. (Corniel's father died when he was 12; his sisters' father was divorced from their mother.) Corniel's mother was grateful that her son had gone to the luau in the absence of a father; the girls and their brother won a dance contest that night. "That's why he was my hero," she said.

Corniel's passion was music. At Bassett High School, he played drums in the marching band. Later, he sang and played bass in Crash Ride, a four-member rock band. The group played gigs Monday nights at Anarchy Library, the Downey rock club where he met his fiancee a year ago. The band recorded one CD. Corniel wrote the lyrics to one of the songs, "Will You Be There." He can still be heard singing it, now hauntingly, on a website: www.myspace.com/crashride.

"I called you the other day because I didn't want you to be sad," he sings. "I told you I loved you, and you started to cry."

Growing up, Corniel was drawn to the military. His grandmother, Gerri Vigil, found a photo the other day that showed him wearing an Army hat at his birthday party when he turned 3. At 12, he joined a Young Marines program in Pico Rivera and stayed in it for five years. As a teenager, he loved war video games. He was known later for his "encyclopedic knowledge" of small arms, according to the National Guard.

When he graduated from high school in 2000, Corniel enlisted in the Marine Corps. In four years with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, he served in Iraq, Spain, Japan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Early in the Iraq war, his unit was assigned to secure oil wells, his grandmother said.

After his honorable discharge, Corniel traveled the East Coast with Crash Ride, hoping to make it in the music business. "That was his dream," his mother said.

Back home in La Puente, he considered police academy training to become a sheriff's deputy, but eventually signed up as a recruiter for the National Guard and volunteered to go back to Iraq. Within weeks, he was on his way.

Corniel spent the fall in Baghdad. From there, he kept in close touch with his fiancee, mother, sisters and grandmother -- by phone, e-mail and instant-message Web chats.

On both tours of Iraq, he spared loved ones the details of the violence he witnessed in war. Once, he woke up his mother with a phone call at 2:30 a.m. He sounded distraught, and she still wonders why. He asked her to sing him a lullaby -- "Lu, Lu, Lu" -- that she had sung to him when he was a boy. She did.

At her son's coffin at a viewing Thursday, she sang it to him again. "I'm sure there were tears on the flag, but I didn't care," she said.

One consolation for Lopez is that her son fell in love with Calderon, a makeup artist from Bellflower. "He learned to love a woman, and to be loved back," Lopez said.

The day before he died, his mother recalled, Corniel told his fiancee in an e-mail: "24 more days until the happiest day of my life."

"Why him?" his mother asked, "when he was so needed -- not by his country, but by us."

After his death, the National Guard promoted Corniel from corporal to sergeant. He earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman's Badge.

Among the mourners Saturday, dressed in the desert camouflage uniforms they wore in Iraq, were most of the 30 members of Corniel's unit. Officially due to be welcomed home at the Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos at 2 p.m. Monday, they had been released a week early from Ft. Bliss, Texas -- where they had been preparing to return to civilian life -- so they could attend the funeral.

Spc. Ronnie Gan, who, like Corniel, also had served in the Marines, said his comrade was a skilled and dedicated military man.

"He was a soldier breed," Gan said. "That's what he was going to be in life. If he had to die, he wanted it to be while fighting for his country."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World