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Marine Lance Cpl. Rogelio A. Ramirez, 21, Pasadena; killed in an explosion

Times Staff Writer

To become a Marine, Lance Cpl. Rogelio A. Ramirez spent two years returning to school, working to pay off truancy fines and even removing a tattoo on his own.

After five weeks in combat, the Pasadena resident was killed Aug. 26 while on a convoy-security detail in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad. He was 21.

As a child, he had been a good student. But his parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade. He began acting out, and over the next few years he lost interest in school, said his mother, Irene Ramirez.

By 16, he had dropped out of Pasadena High School. He fared no better in continuation school, so his father, Rogelio Ramirez Sr., a Salvadoran immigrant, sent him to El Salvador to clear his head.

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Upon returning, Ramirez spoke often of the Marine Corps.

“He’d see the billboards, the uniforms with the swords,” his mother said. “He started watching war movies. It became very intriguing to him. He saw the power behind the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, he announced that he wanted to join the Marines. He was only 16.

“I prayed, ‘Let this war be over with before he’s old enough,’ ” his mother said.

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Two years ago, about the time Ramirez turned 19, he became devoted to the idea of joining the Marine Corps infantry.

His father, once a member of a local militia during the Salvadoran civil war, tried to talk him out of it.

“I was forced to fight,” his father recalled. “I told him, ‘You’re going looking for it.’ He said, ‘You don’t want me to grow up.’ ”

But his parents weren’t the only obstacle. Marine recruiters told him that he needed to pass a GED -- general equivalency diploma -- exam and complete 15 college credits.

His mother was relieved. “He won’t make it because he’s lost the discipline of wanting to go to school,” she told herself.

Over the next year, however, he displayed a dedication that he had never shown before. He went to night school and passed the GED. Then he enrolled at Pasadena City College, taking Spanish, Italian and math.

Ramirez was Gunnery Sgt. George Clinton’s first recruit. In the seven months before boot camp, Clinton, now a recruiter in the high desert, spoke with Ramirez virtually every day.

To make sure Ramirez was home early every night, Clinton and Ramirez woke at 5 a.m. and met early at the Pasadena college to run six days a week. Eventually, a group of up to 20 Marines and recruits joined them.

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In time, Ramirez and Clinton, 33, from Louisville, Ky., became like brothers.

“Anything he ever did, he never stuck with it,” Clinton said of his young friend’s life before the Marines. “He felt this could be his one chance to really accomplish something.”

Ramirez discovered, however, that he still owed almost $1,200 in truancy fines from his days of ditching high school. The Marines don’t take recruits with pending legal problems.

He got a night job at McDonald’s while going to college during the day. His mother helped by redeeming cans and bottles. It took a year, but he paid off the fines.

The Marines also don’t accept recruits with certain tattoos, and Ramirez had a small tattoo of three dots on his left hand. Three dots usually signify the Spanish words mi vida loca (my crazy life) -- a description of life in a gang.

He’d never been involved in a gang, but got the tattoo as a prank years before, his mother said. At first, he had a box tattooed around the three dots, turning it into a die. Not good enough, recruiters said. So one Sunday, when his mother attended church, he picked up scissors and cut the tattoo off.

“He took the top layers of skin off. When I saw it, it was raw, bleeding,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to go.’ ”

Ramirez passed the Marine entrance exam and left for induction one morning shortly after his birthday on June 30, 2006.

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That morning, his mother woke early and cooked her son a big breakfast.

About 5 a.m., Clinton honked from the street. She gave her son $20 for food. Then she took his face in her hands, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“I’ll never see you this way again because when you come back, you’ll be the Marine you wanted to be,” she said.

“That’s right, Mom,” he said. “I did it.”

A year later, in July, he was sent to Iraq.

A machine gunner on an armored vehicle, he had gone out on patrol the night of Aug. 25. When his convoy was attacked, he silenced several insurgent machine gun positions, providing cover that allowed Marines to evacuate the wounded, according to his commander’s report.

Ramirez could have stayed in camp the next day. But when officers asked for volunteers to go out again the night of Aug. 26, he raised his hand.

On patrol that night, an explosive device hit his vehicle. He died instantly.

Shortly before he left for Iraq, two things had happened.

On MySpace.com, he met a girl, Carla Lopez. She lived nearby and they became involved. She is four months pregnant with his child.

Also, he saw commentary by English philosopher John Stuart Mill on the importance of having something worth fighting for. It summed up Ramirez’s view of life. Four days before he left for war, he had 77 words tattooed on his right side. They began: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. . . .”

Ramirez was buried Sept. 4 at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.

In addition to his parents and unborn child, he is survived by a brother, Miguel; and many half- and step-siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.

A few days after his burial, Irene Ramirez sat on her porch and wondered -- if she had it to do over again -- whether she would try harder to stop him. She thought not.

“It’s what he did with his life,” she said. “When he walked out that door, he walked out whole. He had himself together. He had purpose. He was determined. I wouldn’t have taken that from him.”

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sam.quinones@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Striking a chord

Citing English philosopher John Stuart Mill, Marine Lance Cpl. Rogelio A. Ramirez had these words tattooed on his right side a few months before he was killed in Iraq:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”


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