Dozens of casualties were U.S. immigrants
Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was an orphan who made his way to the U.S. from the streets of Guatemala City as a teen. Army Sgt. 1st Class Tung Nguyen, born in Vietnam, was 11 and living in a refugee camp in Thailand when his mother placed him on a rickety boat with the goal of reaching America.
Of the nearly 500 Californians who have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 59 were immigrants, The Times has found in an analysis of their obituaries.
Dozens more were first-generation Americans whose parents made their way to the U.S. from China, Mexico, Central America, Russia and elsewhere to seek a better life.
At age 7, Army Cpl. Victor H. Toledo-Pulido was smuggled from Mexico through rugged mountains into California. He and another soldier were killed in May 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle southeast of Baghdad.
“They judge us, and they say we just come to take their jobs and positions, but we also make sacrifices. Victor worked since he was little, in the fields and in restaurants,” his mother, Maria Gaspar, said after the 22-year-old was killed. “He was Mexican, but he thought like an American. And he gave his life for this country.”
Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, another immigrant from Mexico, enlisted the day he got his green card work permit. In a fierce battle in November 2004, Peralta threw his body on a grenade hurled by an insurgent in Fallouja, Iraq.
“If he hadn’t done what he did, a lot of us wouldn’t be seeing our families again,” said Lance Cpl. Travis J. Kaemmerer, who witnessed the blast.
At least 25 were born in Mexico, at least 11 in the Philippines, at least three in South Korea and at least two each in Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Vietnam. One man came from Scotland; another moved from Australia.
In all, at least 12% were born outside the U.S. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that roughly 26% of California’s population is foreign-born, including people here illegally.
Foreign-born legal residents can enlist in the U.S. military once they have permanent residency. Nationwide, about 69,000 active-duty military personnel were born outside the U.S., about 5% of the total.
Army Spc. Luis Ayala, 21, of South Gate was born to a mother who came to the U.S. illegally. He was killed in late 2006 when a roadside bomb exploded near him while on patrol near Taji, Iraq.
While stationed in Germany the year before, he wrote to an immigration judge to say it was unfair that he should be fighting for the United States while the government denied his mother legal residency. The judge agreed.
Marine Lance Cpl. Bunny Long’s parents came from Cambodia, where they had been imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge for four years in a labor camp. The youngest of their four children, he was born in Tennessee and raised in Modesto. “This is our home,” Sim Long said after his son was killed in March 2006 by a suicide car bomber in Fallouja. “I’m very proud that Bunny was able to give back to his country. Our country.”