Marine Lt. Col. Mario Carazo, 41, Carlsbad; shot down over Afghanistan


From the time he was a toddler, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mario Carazo always dreamed of flying. As he grew older, he was able to meld that passion with his deep patriotism and fiercely protective instincts when he joined the Marines and trained as a Cobra helicopter pilot.

So when Carazo, 41, of Carlsbad, was shot down and killed while flying a combat mission over Afghanistan on July 22, his grief-stricken family and friends took a measure of comfort in knowing he died doing what he loved best.

“He always wanted to be a Marine serving his country and protecting those he loved,” said Robert Barry, his former roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy, who retired from the Marines in 2005 and now serves as a manpower analyst at the corps’ headquarters in Virginia. “While I am extremely sad, I know he didn’t go down without a fight and he went down doing what he always wanted to do.”

Carazo, an Inglewood native, was the youngest of four children and the only U.S.-born member of his Costa Rican immigrant family. He could not speak English when he entered school and initially struggled in class, according to his wife, Jennifer.

But his competitive nature drove him to study hard. He graduated from Cerritos High School in 1987 and earned an undergraduate degree in history at the United States Naval Academy in 1991. He went on to earn two master’s degrees in national security and strategy and operational studies. Fascinated by military history, he could spend hours discussing Iran, Iraq and other world hot spots.

He was equally intense in his commitment to the Marine Corps, whose aircraft and bonds of brotherhood strongly attracted him. Barry said he would never forget the time Carazo came to his aid after he lost a navigation device during a Naval Academy training exercise and was chewed out by the company commander. Carazo boldly approached the commander and asked him to cut Barry some slack.

“He always had my back,” Barry said, chuckling that Carazo’s action only got him into more trouble.

Dave Geier, a family friend in Carlsbad, said Carazo never left his home without some Marine insignia, whether a cap or a camouflage T-shirt. He planned a Marine-style boot camp for his young son’s birthday party and arranged children into platoons when he chaperoned school field trips, Geier said.

Carazo was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer in 1991, attended flight training in Pensacola, Fla., and received his Wings of Gold in 1994. He was deployed seven times to Asia and the Mideast, including stints in Iraq in 2006 and 2008.

An AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter pilot based at Camp Pendleton, Carazo had been deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province in March to help develop operational plans for aviation squads as a future plans officer with the 3rd Marine Air Wing (Forward). But on his last day, Barry said, Carazo was asked to fly. He was providing air cover for an infantry battalion on the ground when he was shot down.

His many military awards include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal with gold star. He is buried at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Despite his military intensity, Carazo was also a happy, positive spirit who loved to dance and was tagged with the name Sugar Bear — his Marine call sign — for his teddy-bear looks, family and friends said.

“He had such a zest for life,” Jennifer Carazo said. “He didn’t sweat the small stuff.”

She said he lived for their children — Mario, 9, and Milla, who turns 7 on Monday — and spent weekends taking them to museums and on frozen yogurt runs and coaching Mario’s soccer team.

Jennifer Carazo said he had his entire life mapped out the first time she met him, on a Florida beach more than two decades ago. He knew he wanted to be a pilot, marry a woman just like her and devote his life to public service, she said.

His one unmet goal was to enter politics after completing his military service, following in the footsteps of his role model, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“He devoted his life to serving his country,” Jennifer Carazo said. “He wanted to make a difference in this world. I truly believe he did, and I tell our children so every day.”