Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, where so many dreams are hemmed in by the fields, Jeremiah Baro and Jared Hubbard had the good fortune of being suburban boys. Their fathers weren’t farmworkers following the crops, but a loan officer and a cop who expected even more for their sons.
But when they graduated from high school three years ago, the standout wrestler and the football star seemed unsure what to do next. This much was certain, family and friends said: Wherever one would go, the other would follow.
In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, they headed to Camp Pendleton as part of the Marine Corps buddy program. When Baro, 21, decided to try out for an elite sniper unit, Hubbard, 22, stood beside him. It was Jeremiah and Jared, sharpshooter and spotter, right up to the day last week when they set out on a mission west of Baghdad.
In the early morning darkness of Nov. 4, as their families were still sorting out the presidential election back home, the two young men, on their second tour of duty, were struck by a hidden bomb detonated by an Iraqi insurgent. It must have hit just so, because of the eight Marines walking along both sides of the road, only two -- Baro and Hubbard -- were killed.
On Thursday, as the nation observed Veterans Day, the two hometown boys were buried side by side in a cemetery just down the road from where they grew up in this old rodeo town.
Once grammar school rivals on the wrestling mat, they had become best friends who, on the eve of battle, made a pact to watch each other’s back.
“I don’t think Jeremiah would have made it if he had lived and Jared had died. I think the guilt would have killed him,” said his aunt, Marissa Baro-Garabito. “One couldn’t have come back without the other. So they came back together.”
The war in Iraq, which seemed so distant a week ago, had come home. With tiny U.S. flags lining the quaint streets of old town and red, white and blue ribbons tied around elm trees that marked the path to the funeral chapel where two coffins rested in a rose-colored light, the war came home. With a disbelieving mother reaching past the perfect uniform to feel the wounds herself and a girlfriend picking out a letter from keepsakes in a shoebox -- a last letter that spoke of marriage and a full life after the war -- it came home.
“My love, things right here in Ramadi are a lot different than when I was in Iraq the first time. The mood of the people is very bad. It seems like everyone hates us out here,” Baro wrote to Stephine Sanchez. “I went out on a mission last night and I was on a rooftop. I looked directly straight up and I saw our star. Do you remember our star?”
Baro and Hubbard became the sixth and seventh service members from this rich agricultural belt in the middle of California to die in the war. Just a few days before, three Marines in dress uniform had walked into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lemoore and told a mother that her 20-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Jeremy D. Bow, had been killed outside Fallouja.
Jeff Hubbard, who retired from the Clovis Police Department after 30 years, read of that death in the local newspaper, and the war drew even nearer. Still, he and his wife, Peggy, didn’t believe it could happen to their son. Each of their four children was precious, he said, but it was Jared who made him feel especially connected to his own father, Robert, a rugged, lightning-quick athlete at Clovis High in the 1940s who went on to become a beloved coach. Jared had his grandfather’s strength and speed.
“I remember when he was just a 60-pound kid and he would grab kids 20 or 30 pounds heavier and just lift them up,” Jeff Hubbard said. “He was strong. But it wasn’t a recipe for him being a bully. He had a deep feeling for the underdog.”
It seemed only yesterday that he was coaching 11-year-old Jared and the rest of the Garfield Cubs. That’s when his son met two of his best friends, Brandon Sanchez and Bennie Clay.
“What I’ll never forget is Jared’s smile,” Clay said. “In every photo I’ve got of him, he’s smiling from ear to ear. He was tough but he was sweet too.”
In the seventh grade at Alta Sierra Junior High, that tight circle grew to add one more, Jeremiah Baro. His parents, Bert and Terry, had come from the Bay Area when Jeremiah -- nicknamed Boogie because he never stopped moving -- was 8 years old. Clovis was the perfect little place. Surrounded by vineyards and fruit orchards on the other side of Fresno, it was a growing town with one of the finest school systems in the West. The campuses sprawled with new classrooms and state-of-the-art athletic facilities. The high schools boasted some of the best wrestling, baseball and football teams in California. On Friday nights, the cannon at Lamonica Stadium boomed with every Clovis touchdown.
Jeremiah didn’t play football, but his friendship with Jared grew strong during that first wrestling season. The two boys were far from carbon copies. Jared traced his roots to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Jeremiah was part Spanish and part Filipino. Jared was taller and more laid-back. Jeremiah was short, all fire.
“I guess he took after me,” said Bert Baro, who is built like a pit bull. “He would not go out looking for trouble, but he was not about to back down if it found him. Jared was more cool. They complemented each other perfectly.”
Both boys had their hellion sides, patches of drinking and fighting, but it was Jeremiah who seemed to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, friends and teachers said.
At a state wrestling tournament in Stockton, he and several other boys, most of them sophomores at Buchanan High School, had sneaked out of their hotel room and bought five six-packs of beer. When coaches discovered the cache, they were kicked off the team and sent to a continuation school. Two years later, back at Buchanan, Jeremiah was caught with some pills at a football game and sent off again. A tenacious 125-pound wrestler, he never got to compete his senior year.
Jared, on the other hand, had some kind of luck, friends and teammates said. At a high school beer party, he got into a fight, boxing gloves and all, with a cross-town rival. When the Clovis police arrived, several students got in trouble, but not Jared. Being Sgt. Hubbard’s son had its upside.
As it turned out, his senior year in football was the most memorable in school history. The Buchanan Bears, with Jared anchoring the defensive line, won the valley championship and came within a touchdown of beating the No. 1-ranked team in the country, De La Salle High of Concord. Jared was only 5 feet 8 and 165 pounds but he was so quick that 280-pound opponents, already headed to big-time colleges, could not handle him.
“Jared Hubbard was one of those kids I will never forget,” said his line coach, Shawn Murray, who called him Hub-a-Dub. “He was a good student and worked hard at everything he did. As an athlete, he wasn’t the most gifted, but no one had more determination. He was a kid I would love to have as son.”
By the end of that year, Jeremiah had worked his way back on campus so that he could graduate with Jared. He seemed to have turned a corner, family and friends said. More and more, he talked about following the footsteps of his father’s brother, a former Marine. Even before watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center come down that September, Jeremiah had made up his mind.
“He was at that stage in life where he has to make the choice of what to do. It doesn’t matter what I want him to do. It’s what he wants to do,” his father said. “Nobody wants war. But you either make a stand or you run. If you don’t stop the terrorists where they breed, they’ll be here.”
Jared had just finished another summer as a lifeguard for poor minority children in Fresno. He had signed up for the local junior college, but his heart wasn’t it in. One day, standing in the kitchen of the family’s two-story custom house, he broached the idea of signing up for the Marines and joining Jeremiah.
His father, a warm, engaging man, had rarely played hard-nosed cop with his children. Even when Jared came home with his tongue and an eyebrow pierced his sophomore year, the displeasure he expressed was a quiet one. This time, as Jared described feeling adrift, his father and mother cautioned him. Take the military test and see how you score, they told him. If you score high, you can enter as an officer. No need to go in as a front-line infantryman.
He ended up acing the exam but still insisted on the infantry.
“He wanted to go in with Jeremiah,” his mother said. “He was adamant about doing infantry.”
After they went through boot camp as official “buddies,” the Marine Corps put them in different units in Iraq. During the March 2003 invasion and the months that followed, they saw each other only a few times. Jeremiah’s squad ran into trouble. The soldiers were having a hard time discerning soldiers from civilians. So they decided to shoot at everything that moved, according to their letters home. It got so bad that their commander took away their explosives.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Jared wrote to Murray, his former football coach. “During our ride to Baghdad, my bud and I have our machine guns out the top. Bullets going over our heads, the rest of the squad tugging my leg asking what’s going on. Couldn’t see a damn thing because it was so green and thick. Like Nam. We fought for 2 1/2 hours. We killed them all.”
They came home in late summer 2003 and took a long break. Jeremiah recorded his own rap songs on two compact discs but otherwise couldn’t sit still. Something was burning in him. He told his fiancee, Stephine Sanchez, and his parents that he wanted in the worst way to go to sniper school. And he wanted his best pal to go with him. “Dude,” he told Jared, according to Sanchez. “We can be together all the way through this time.”
Jared assured his parents that being a sniper was less dangerous than being an infantryman. “I told him, ‘Jared are you sure?’ ” his mother recalled. “He gave me that big grin of his and said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom.’ ”
They bought him the best bipod and laser rangefinder for $500. Before he left in August, he and his older brother, Jason, a Fresno County sheriff’s deputy, and younger brother, Nathan, got the same tattoo on their left biceps: three interlocking ravens.
Jared kept in touch by e-mail and phone. A month ago, he told one of his friends about a mission that was so risky he felt compelled to protest. “He wasn’t the kind of kid to question authority unless he thought there was a good reason,” his father said.
Jeremiah was having his own conflicted feelings. “He told me he was having a harder time telling the good Iraqis from the bad ones,” his father said. “He had killed some who were quite clearly enemy insurgents, but there were others who were ambiguous. And that troubled him.”
Last Wednesday night, the Hubbards tried to e-mail Jared to give him the news of the presidential election. “I said, ‘Jared, Bush won. Your dad and I are so happy, but where are you? Where are you?’ ”
The next morning, Terry Baro had dropped off her two youngest sons at elementary school when she noticed two Marines standing outside her door.
“Is Jeremiah dead?” she asked. When the Marines drew closer, she asked a second question, “Did Jared die too?”
The bodies came home at midnight Monday. Peggy Hubbard said as much as she heard the Marine officer’s account, she thought her son was still alive and it was all a bad dream. When she saw him lying there in the casket, she had to check his body for herself.
“I am his mother. I know how his lips go. I know how his chin goes. I know if he’s swollen on one side or not,” she said. “On the back of his head, all the way around, I found these stitches.”
St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was packed for the funeral -- a congressman, state senators, two mayors, scores of law enforcement officers from Clovis and Fresno, hundreds of family, friends and teachers, and a dozen boys, now men, wearing their old Buchanan lettermen’s jackets.
Under a sky that was part rain and part sun, seven Marine riflemen fired three times each -- a 21-gun salute -- over the heads of the bodies and into the direction of the Sierra. A bugler played taps, two white doves flew into a rainbow and the parents of Cpl. Jeremiah Baro and Lance Cpl. Jared Hubbard fingered the flags just handed to them.
Of all of her son’s possessions that the military has given her, Peggy Hubbard said maybe the most comforting -- and mystifying -- is Jared’s wristwatch. Here was this explosion that tore apart her son and his best friend, and the watch was still telling perfect Iraqi time, 10 hours into the future.