More than anything else in the world, Marc Retmier’s parents wanted him to return from Afghanistan, go to college and get back to doing what he did best: bossing them around, riding motorcycles and telling his brother to cut his hair.
“He was supposed to be here July 4th for leave,” said his father, Steve Retmier. “We almost had him back.”
But this week, the 19-year-old Navy hospitalman who had hoped to become a doctor instead became a grim statistic and poignant milestone. He was the 500th Californian to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, the seventh from this working-class city of about 66,000 in southern Riverside County.
Retmier, who has two younger brothers, was killed Wednesday when a Taliban rocket slammed into his Humvee as he was patrolling in northern Paktia province. He was a medic assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Sharana. Petty Officer 1st Class Ross Toles III, 37, of Davison, Mich., also was killed.
Retmier’s death left his parents questioning the war and wondering whether it was worth the life of their son.
His mother Joy, a clerk at a Stater Brothers store, said she was always uneasy about his military service. Friends told her he was “lucky” to be in Afghanistan because Iraq was so much worse. But as Marc e-mailed her with more and more stories about his experiences on the ground, she began to wonder if the U.S. was making any real progress.
“He told me he would go through villages handing out coloring books and the kids would rip them up and throw them back at him,” she said. “He told us they didn’t want Americans there.”
She produced photographs of her son tending to the bloodied heads of two Afghan men who had nearly beaten each other to death.
Then she began to cry.
“My baby was only 19,” she sobbed. “I don’t want another parent to go through what I went through.”
His father, who sat on the living room couch Friday as a steady stream of neighbors stopped in to offer condolences, looked over at his son’s maroon-and-white jacket with the varsity swim team letter on it lying across a chair. Marc was a swimmer, surfer and motocross rider and looking forward to sky-diving.
“I don’t blame the military. I am a military enthusiast,” he said. “I just don’t know if we are making any difference over there. And if my son is No. 500, I don’t want to see 501.”
Retmier had three years left in the Navy, then planned to attend Cal State Long Beach and study medicine.
“His passion was always to be where the action was,” Steve Retmier said. “He could have stayed at Bethesda Naval Hospital and been a corpsman. My son believed in what he was doing and he kept volunteering. He didn’t have to be there.”
Marc’s grandfather, Dale Powers, 75, a decorated Korean War veteran, said the teenager wanted combat experience on his resume. Powers took the death especially hard.
“He used to follow me around like a little shadow; I practically raised him,” he said. “I took him everywhere. I took him camping and fishing. He was sort of in charge of the family.”
At the Retmier home and around town, no one could explain why Hemet has seen so many combat deaths. Six of the seven killed attended Hemet Senior High School. Retmier spent a year there but then was home-schooled and graduated early from Alessandro High School.
One of the Retmier’s neighbors said there was so little future in town that youths saw the military as a way out. Others noted that Hemet is a haven for retired veterans and younger service people fleeing higher-priced military towns such as Oceanside.
“Only the good Lord knows why so many people have died from Hemet. There are a lot of good people here, and they aren’t afraid to stand up and fight for their country,” said Mayor Marc Searl. “It’s something we are trying to deal with, and we will never forget them. War is devastating. War is hell.”
At the nearby VFW Post 2266 in San Jacinto, some older veterans just shook their heads.
Jerry Woodbeck, 80, said it is a sad fact of history that young men die in battle. During World War II, he said, when he served in the Navy, a single death was barely worth noting.
“You had a gold star or a blue star in your window,” he said, explaining that the gold star meant someone had died and the blue meant someone was serving. “I think it’s just a quirk of nature that so many have come from Hemet. I don’t think we are more patriotic than anyone else.”
Military recruiters, however, described Hemet as one of the top recruiting sites in all of Southern California.
Staff Sgt. Charles Hudson, a Marine who did two tours in Iraq, said he is usually happy to get two recruits a month. He got seven last month in Hemet.
“Hemet is untouched. It’s booming,” he said. “You have all of these high schools around here with lots of young people.”
On Friday, Hudson had Cody Stewart, 16, and his mother, Janice Sanches, in his office. Stewart said he wants to join the Marines when he’s 17 and become part of its elite Force Reconnaissance unit.
Hudson said he is “brutally honest” with potential recruits. But when a visitor mentioned it, he said, he hadn’t yet broached the subject of possible death with the Hemet High School student. Stewart was unfazed. He said he didn’t even think about it.
“It’s tragic when somebody dies, but it was his choice to join,” he said. “For me, it’s a chance of being a part of a big brotherhood that goes back hundreds of years. Death never crosses my mind.”
His mother supports his decision.
“If my son is killed in the line of duty, then it was his time to go,” she said. “My husband is a sheriff’s deputy, and I have the same attitude toward him.”
Hudson looked at young Cody. “This kid is highly qualified,” he said. “He knows what he wants.”
At the Retmier home, it seemed that 17-year-old Matthew Retmier also knew what he wanted: to join the Navy like his brother.
“I want to finish what Marc started and honor his legacy,” he said.
His mother stared hard at the boy. “I don’t want to lose another child,” she said.
Matthew looked down.
“Maybe I could be on a ship somewhere,” he said quietly.
Retmier’s funeral is set for Wednesday at Pacific View Memorial Park and Mortuary in Corona Del Mar.