Four soldiers from Southern California died in a single attack June 28 when Iraqi insurgents detonated a roadside bomb and fired guns and grenades at their stricken convoy in Baghdad.
The Department of Defense identified the dead as Pfc. Cory Hiltz, 20, of La Verne; Sgt. Giann C. Joya-Mendoza, 27, of North Hollywood; Sgt. Shinwoo Kim, 23, of Fullerton; and Sgt. Michael J. Martinez, 24, of Chula Vista. Also killed was Spc. Dustin L. Workman II, 19, of Greenwood, Neb.
All five men were based at Ft. Carson, Colo., and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
Army spokeswoman Karen Linne said a public memorial service will be held Thursday at Ft. Carson “in recognition of the five gentlemen who died together.”
Sgt. Giann Carlo Joya-Mendoza, 27, North Hollywood
By Louis Sahagun
Even after completing a tour of military duty and landing an accounting job at an edgy Sunset Boulevard hotel, Giann Carlo Joya-Mendoza felt himself being pulled back to the Army life he loved.
What the Honduran immigrant missed most was the regimen and camaraderie, following schedules -- and orders -- to a T. He’d spend hours perfecting the creases of his uniforms, the shine on his boots, the cleanliness of his rifle.
Joya-Mendoza, who was born on the Fourth of July, also “deeply loved the United States,” said his cousin Markus Castro of San Antonio. “I’m against the war. But he told me that he just had to get back over there to liberate the people of Iraq.”
On June 28, Joya-Mendoza, 27, was among five soldiers killed in a Baghdad attack. It was his second tour of duty in Iraq.
“We love Giann Carlo, a simple, down-to-earth kind of guy who loved what he was doing,” said his stepfather, Orlando Useda. “So we will keep him alive in our hearts. For me that means his smile and his determination to be right about even the smallest details.”
Joya-Mendoza’s affinity for detail was forecast in the hobbies of his youth. Friends and relatives marveled over his extensive collections of baseball cards, stamps, coins, miniature soldiers and dollar bills arranged by serial numbers.
Later, he collected knives: swords, hunting knives, pocket knives, kitchen knives, carving knives, throwing knives. He opened the cellophane packaging of CDs at one end with a razor so they would always appear brand new and in their original wrappers.
Joya-Mendoza, relatives recall, was so neat and proper that instead of holding a taco in his hands and taking a bite, he’d carefully insert the edge of the tortilla between the tines of a fork and then, with help from his other hand, gingerly lift it off the plate.
“It took him a long time to finish dinner,” said his sister, Carlota Turcios, 21, “and he’d always leave the tastiest things on the plate for last.”
He immigrated to the United States as a teenager and attended Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, but completed his high school education in Honduras. He then returned to his mother’s home in North Hollywood and enrolled in a nearby community college.
Joya-Mendoza was 20 when he enlisted in the Army in 1999, serving in Germany and South Korea, where he filed an application for U.S. citizenship. After completing his tour of duty, he went to work at Los Angeles’ Mondrian Hotel, working his way up from a busboy job to an accounting position.
“He wasn’t happy at the hotel, which would seem to be a nice place to work,” his stepfather said. “I’d set the alarm to make sure he would get to work on time, and he still wouldn’t get up.”
Joya-Mendoza reenlisted in June 2006. His goal was to eventually transfer into “some analytical branch of the Army, and learn another language, possibly French,” his stepfather said. “He never told us what his assignment in Iraq was. When we’d ask, ‘Giann, how come you never call or write home?’ he’d say, ‘I’m out on patrol. When I get back, I’m really tired and have to sleep. Don’t worry. I’m fine.’ ”
Useda and his wife, Maria I. Mendoza, last heard from their son on Mother’s Day.
“Giann, you OK?” Useda asked him.
Joya-Mendoza just laughed. “We’re fine. We’re lucky,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
When the family received news of his death, Joya-Mendoza’s sister said, she had been “making plans for the whole family to travel to Europe together.”
“We spent a lot of time together when we were growing up; Giann was like a father to me,” Turcios recalled. “But now I feel as though I didn’t get to know him well enough; I didn’t get to know the real Giann.”
Useda and his wife got their wish to acknowledge their son’s patriotism by requesting that his flag-draped coffin return home on his birthday.
“He was awarded his citizenship posthumously during his funeral,” his stepfather said. “We were grateful and appreciative of that.”
Sgt. Michael J. Martinez, 24, Chula Vista
By Maeve Reston
Army Sgt. Michael J. Martinez was a paintball champion known for his sniper’s aim, but he stunned his family and friends when he secretly enlisted in the Army three years after high school.
Everyone assumed the easygoing Martinez would build a life as a police officer in Chula Vista, south of San Diego -- centered around his close-knit family and the tight brotherhood of friends who spent their nights in his parents’ Jacuzzi and playing poker in the backyard.
But after graduating from Eastlake High School in 2000, Martinez quietly became impatient. He was working graveyard hours delivering business supplies for Costco. His daytime classes at Southwestern Community College were so unfulfilling that he and his older brother often pretended to leave for morning classes but sneaked back to bed as soon as their parents left for work.
When his mother, Armida, confronted him about why he was taking calls from an Army recruiter, he confessed that he felt like he was “treading water ... not going anywhere fast,” she said.
He had long admired the military service of his father, Manuel, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and had 28 years in the Army Reserve. Over beers and games of pool, his mother said, he was won over by the recruiter’s argument that military experience could catapult him into the police agency of his choice and send him to college full time.
When he broke the news to his mother, she recalls him saying, “Mom, if one of us ever had to go to war, I’d want to be the one going.”
“He wanted to serve and protect people,” his mother said.
On June 28, Martinez, 24, was among five soldiers killed in a Baghdad attack.
Family members note with anger that his three years of service should have ended in October -- but his term was extended with orders to go Iraq for a second time.
“Michael died, really, on an extension at the behest of the government,” his father said. “Michael didn’t volunteer to go a second time to Iraq. He was locked in.”
Martinez was born and spent his childhood in Chula Vista, playing war games with his older brother in the canyon hills and whiffle ball in their driveway.
He was fast and agile, making school an afterthought to baseball, soccer, football and long days of bodysurfing at Pacific Beach.
Martinez was often the first to take a new team member under his wing, and was fiercely protective, said his friend and childhood neighbor Oscar Rodriguez.
“He was looking out for you all the time,” Rodriguez said. “He just wanted to take care of people, and I think that’s why he took the route he went.”
Martinez’s warmth and that of his family turned their home into “the party house” from the time they were in elementary school, with endless football games in the living room, Nintendo marathons and late-night pool parties.
“There were no worries in the world when you were in that backyard,” said Martinez’s best friend, Dylan Soro. Michael “always brought everybody together.”
On the night they met, Soro and Martinez went on the first of many adventures to clubs in Mexico, but took a wrong turn on the way back from Rosarito Beach.
“It was kind of a scary situation. Neither of us had ever been down in deep Mexico before and neither of us speak Spanish,” Soro said. “We just looked at each other and started laughing.... He lived his life without fear -- he lived with no regrets.”
Family and friends said Martinez had many female admirers.
“He sizzled,” his mother said. “You should see the way he danced. Oh, my God, it was hot.”
In 2006, Martinez became a father with a girlfriend, Natalie Gallardo, whom he met through friends at a party at their house. He made it home in time for the birth of their son, Landon Michael, but got to spend only 12 days with him in the last year.
When Martinez called from Iraq, he insisted on waking up the baby. “He’d say ... ‘Pinch him -- I don’t care -- I want to hear his voice,’ ” his mother said.
In April 2006, Martinez met his future wife, Ashley Owens, at Icon, a now-closed club in Colorado Springs, Colo., and they immediately became inseparable.
Five months later, after a lazy afternoon watching movies in the barracks, Owens was fixing her makeup in a mirror just before dinner and turned to find Martinez on one knee holding a white gold and diamond engagement ring. She snapped up a white dress at Macy’s a week later, and they were married that day by a judge at the Colorado Springs courthouse.
“We wanted to be married, and be together and start our lives together,” said Ashley Martinez, 19.
Michael Martinez left in October for his second tour seeming far less optimistic about the U.S. mission in Iraq. He was worried about his men, he told his parents, because so many soldiers were dying or getting injured and not being replaced. A month before he died, the close friends who were his support group were injured and sent home.
“He told me throughout that month: I give myself a month or less and I’ll either be dead or I’ll be home injured,” his wife said. “He was gone a month to the day.”
In the weeks before Martinez died, he carved out time for what his family now sees as a long goodbye. He had a long talk with his dad on Father’s Day, and woke up his older brother in the middle of the night to talk about childhood memories and how much he had valued his advice.
On the day before he died, he called his mother to say he loved her. He told Gallardo, 20, that he was fighting for her and their son.
Ashley Martinez got two calls from her husband the day he died -- the second just before he went out on patrol.
“He just said he wanted me to know that he loved me, and he wanted me to keep that with me forever,” she said. “Whatever happened ... he’d be with me.”
Martinez was buried with full military honors July 10 at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma in San Diego He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
In addition to his wife, son and parents, Martinez is survived by two brothers, Manny and Marc.
Sgt. Shinwoo Kim, 23, Fullerton
By H.G. Reza
Army Sgt. Shinwoo Kim came home in February on a two-week leave from Iraq. The Fullerton resident crammed a lot of living into those 14 days by spending time with friends and relatives, gorging on junk food and visiting Las Vegas.
The combat medic savored the brief respite but could not leave Iraq behind, said his girlfriend Tammy Cho.
A few days before he returned to the battlefield, they drove to Santa Monica Beach on a Sunday morning to visit the Arlington West memorial -- rows of crosses that peace activists have placed in the sand near the pier to commemorate America’s war dead in Iraq.
“Shinwoo wanted to put his buddy’s name on one of the crosses,” Cho said. “It was like something he just had to do. He wore a bracelet with his name on it.”
On June 28, Shinwoo (pronounced Shinoo), 23, was among five soldiers killed in a Baghdad attack.
Now, it is his family’s turn to make the sad pilgrimage to the beach memorial. The family plans to visit Arlington West today after church, said his sister Shinae, 27.
“We know he’s gone. But I guess we haven’t fully accepted it. My mom and dad are having a difficult time coping. We all are,” she said. “Shinwoo was the baby. My mom never stopped calling him her baby.”
Kim’s family keeps a shrine with his picture, combat awards and flowers in the living room. Also on display is a certificate awarding the South Korean native posthumous U.S. citizenship.
Kim was the youngest of Yoo Buk and Kum Ok Kim’s three children. A graduate of Sunny Hills High School, he was a popular youth with a trademark smile that flashed through good and bad times. He had a personality that his mother thought was not cut out for the Army.
“The first thing that comes to mind was his smile. He could get anything with that smile,” his sister said. “It made him one of the more popular kids in high school. He was definitely one of the cooler kids. We never figured him for a soldier.”
Kim may have been one of the cooler kids, but he joked about his car, an older Kia Sephia that he named “the Little Engine That Could.”
Kim’s parents, who emigrated from South Korea with their children 20 years ago, opposed his decision to enlist in the Army.
In an interview, the grief-stricken parents excused themselves on several occasions while they walked out of the room to compose themselves or dabbed their eyes. Their emotion was wrapped in grief and anger.
With her son Josh, 31, translating, Kum Kim said that if she were able to speak better English she would have gone to the recruiter and insist that he tear up her son’s enlistment contract.
“But my brother had talked about joining the Army since 9/11,” Josh Kim said. “He kept newspaper stories about the attacks and terrorism. We didn’t want him to join, but after he did we all supported him.”
Kim volunteered to be a medic because he wanted to help people, not harm them, his girlfriend said. She said Kim was proud of his Combat Medical Badge, which he earned in his first months in Iraq. Kim told his family that he wanted to attend USC and become a pharmacist after the Army.
Before deploying to Iraq, Kim served in South Korea for a year. He came home on leave in 2006, thinking he was going to be permanently assigned to Ft. Carson, Colo. Kum Kim was so overjoyed at having her son home that she bought him a new car.
“Mom, Shinwoo and I went to the dealer, and he picked out a black Lexus,” his sister recalled saying. “Yeah. He wasn’t spoiled by my mom.”
Kim drove the car for about two weeks and returned to Colorado. He arrived home a week later with the news that he had been ordered to Iraq.
After spending a week at home, Kim shipped out to Iraq. He got to drive his new car for less than a month.
“We kept it parked, running the engine every once in a while,” his brother said. “We didn’t want to drive it because we wanted it to still smell like new when Shinwoo came home.”
Kim did not die of his combat wounds right away. Josh Kim said his brother lingered for a few hours before Army doctors decided to disconnect him from a respirator.
With a doctor in Iraq holding a telephone by Kim’s ear, the Army arranged for the family to tell the unconscious soldier goodbye from their home in Fullerton.
“I’ll see you in heaven one day,” Josh Kim told his brother. The soldier’s parents couldn’t bring themselves to the phone.
Pfc. Cory Hiltz, 20, La Verne
By James Ricci
When Army Pfc. Cory Hiltz was ordered to serve a three-month extension of duty in Iraq, he was given a few weeks’ leave and returned to his hometown of La Verne on May 30 to reconnect with family and friends.
He had always been easygoing and affable, and his parents feared that eight months as an infantryman amid the perils of Baghdad might have altered his good nature.
“We were so afraid that he was going to be jaded, changed, by the war,” said his father, Wayne. “But he wasn’t. He came back and spent 15 days with us and he was just as loving and contented as always -- maybe even more so. That was amazing to us, that he could experience such horrible things and still be loving toward people.”
Hiltz’s close friends were similarly impressed. A small group of them spirited him off for five days of camping at Puddingstone Reservoir in San Dimas.
“He was unbelievably happy,” said his best friend, Trevor Mathews, a business and theology student at Concordia University in Irvine. “He always had a smile on his face that made me want to smile back at him.”
Hiltz, 20, left La Verne on June 15 and was back in Iraq three days later. On June 28, he was among five soldiers killed in a Baghdad attack.
Hiltz’s family was quickly informed of his death, and for his father the experience had particular poignancy.
Wayne Hiltz is a retired deputy chief of the Pasadena Police Department, and many times had informed others of the deaths of loved ones.
“It’s a difficult position to be in, on either side, really,” he said. “Oftentimes when police officers make notifications, it’s based upon an unexpected death, be it traffic accidents or homicide or other circumstances of that nature. When your child’s in Iraq, you just know that the potential for that occurs every day. You pray that it doesn’t, but you know it does.”
Mathews got the news at 3 p.m. the day after his friend died. He said he spent that weekend “telling my friends the worst news they’d ever heard.”
For the first few nights, the group that a few weeks earlier had gone camping with Hiltz devoted a great deal of time to looking at old photographs.
Dealing with the reality “has been very hard on me and my friends,” Mathews said. “We’ve had to support each other a lot. Without them, I have no idea where I’d be in this whole ordeal.”
On the Fourth of July in La Verne, which flies a banner for each of the more than 130 residents serving in the armed forces, city officials dedicated the municipal fireworks display to Hiltz, the city’s first son to die in Iraq.
Before the fireworks, Mathews addressed the 3,000 attendees. He announced that the Hiltz family was establishing a scholarship at Hiltz’s alma matter, La Verne Lutheran High School. It would be called the Cory Hiltz Smiling Heart Memorial Scholarship, and it would be awarded not on the basis of academic achievement but on the recipient’s kindly dealings with others.
Hiltz’s body came home to La Verne on July 8. A private memorial service was held July 14 at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, with burial at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Covina Hills.
In addition to his father, Hiltz is survived by his mother, Debra, and a sister, Kayla.
In their grief, the Hiltzes have been buoyed by the expressions of sympathy and support from others, including strangers, with their own loved ones serving in Iraq.
Wayne Hiltz said the family is looking forward to traveling to Ft. Carson, Colo., on Thursday for a memorial service, where they will meet the families of the four other slain soldiers.
Mathews’ memories of his friend are of a kindred spirit, a teammate on the La Verne Lutheran freshman football team and a golfer who, having been captain of the school golf team, handily beat his friends whenever they played.
“We were a lot alike,” Mathews said. “We both played sports and watched a lot of sports on TV. And we’re both Christians. I can’t say I’m angry. I can say I’m most definitely sad. But hope is what I have, hope to see my best friend again, in heaven.”
Donations to the scholarship fund may be sent to: Cory Hiltz Smiling Heart Memorial Scholarship, La Verne Lutheran High School, 3960 Fruit St., La Verne, CA 91750. For information, call (909) 593-4494.