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1,800 loving tributes offered for California's war dead

California's War Dead
Profiles of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus reactions from readers.
The expressions of grief number more than 1,800, each memory offering a glimpse of a man or woman who has died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some tributes have been brief.

"The greatest man I have ever known," read a comment last month about Marine Lance Cpl. Ray Spencer II, 20, of Ridgecrest, Calif., who died April 16 in a nonhostile incident in Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad. The message was signed "Unknown."

A year ago on Memorial Day, The Times began California’s War Dead database. And nearly every day messages have been left by spouses, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, strangers and fellow veterans. To date, 536 men and women from the state have been killed in combat or accidents. Some have taken their own lives.

It is difficult to read more than a few of the comments without feeling a profound sense of loss. Some descriptions are vivid, even lyrical.

"My favorite memory is this: He called me at three in the morning and said, 'Bipsy, I'm joining the army tomorrow! Let's go to the beach! Right now!' So we drove to Oceanside, went all the way out to the edge of the pier, and he said, 'You've got to try this-sit on the edge!' " a friend wrote about Army Sgt. Nathan Bouchard, 24, of Wildomar.

"It was pitch black, so I was a little scared, but he was right, it was awesome. All you could see were the sea gulls' white bodies and their reflections shining on the black, glassy water. It was surreal, like floating in space. I only saw Nathan one more time after that, before he died. I'm so thankful to God that I got to have that special memory of someone so in love with life. He knew how to live it with passion and died fighting for what he believed."

Bouchard was killed Aug. 18, 2005, when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee in Samarra, Iraq, north of Baghdad.

Some of the grief expressed reads like an entry in a diary.

"I heard the news at 1:00 in the morning on 11APR09, though it really didn't hit me until we opened the casket," Isaac Ramsey wrote after his brother, Airman 1st Class Jacob I. Ramsey, 20, of Hesperia, was found dead last month in Baghdad of a gunshot wound to the head in what the military described as a noncombat-related incident.

Isaac Ramsey wrote from Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is deployed: " . . . The sadness haunts me still, and the hopelessness I feel, the despair over what happened can't be expressed in any human language, and the extent of how unfair it seems to be that after the death of my brother, we have to continue living, but we do. It seems that the death of a human being isn't important to stop time, to shake history. . . . If it wasn't for those in power, my brother would probably still be alive, because he never would have had to be deployed. And if it wasn't for those terrorists in the Middle East, so many more grieving mothers would still have their babies. . . ."

Other grief is delayed.

"I just found out tonight that Dan was dead. All I can say is that he was a close friend of mine, and I am sad that I won't get to hear that laugh of his again. Dan Isshak was one of the best people I ever knew. I will never forget him," Jason Williams wrote earlier this month about Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Isshak, 25, of Alta Loma, who died Oct. 3, 2006, in Tikrit, Iraq, when his vehicle was attacked with small-arms fire north of Baghdad.

Wives have written of their pain and their love.

Army Staff Sgt. Sean Diamond, 41, of Dublin was killed Feb. 15 when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in As Salam, Iraq, south of Baghdad. He had served three tours in Iraq. His wife, Lora, wrote: "He had the most beautiful heart and soul. He was a caring father and dedicated husband. He never forgot us. He would call everyday or when he couldn't he would write. A life without him is now a life with sadness."

Mothers have written of the last time they saw their sons.

Army Pfc. Daniel P. Cagle, 22, of Carson was killed May 23, 2007, when a bomb exploded while he was on foot patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, west of Baghdad.

His mother, Gail Johnson, wrote earlier this month: "We had the great fortune of having Daniel home three weeks before he was killed. During that time we had many serious talks, even those about the possibility of him not returning. He gave us all specific directions to remember him with laughter and all the good times before and not sorrows. He knew the risks, but he also knew that he was needed in Iraq. He would be incomplete without his men, and they without him. We are doing our best to honor his life, not his death. My grief is deep and great, and still not a day passes that there are not tears, but my pride for my son is greater yet and I thank the good Lord in the blessing in having Daniel as my son."

Some were grateful for tangible reminders.

Army Pfc. Cameron Payne, 22, of Corona was killed June 11, 2007, when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Balad, Iraq, north of Baghdad.

Shortly after the new year, his mother, Denise Jackson, wrote: "I have such great memories of Cameron during the Christmas holidays. It's during this time I miss him the most. Just the other day I was looking at all the homemade cards that Cameron made me throughout is younger years and began to cry. I'm so thankful that I never threw any of his artwork away. I miss you son and will see you in my dreams. Love, Mommy."

Irene Ramirez wrote a remembrance to her son Rogelio's friend, Marine Lance Cpl. Sergio H. Escobar. The 18-year-old from Pasadena was killed Oct. 8, 2005, by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq.

"His death and his honor had a great impact on my son. Rogelio also joined the Marines and told me to never forget his friend Sergio and what he did for his country. Two years later, my son Rogelio also gave his life for his country. Now together they both serve in a greater place."

Marine Lance Cpl. Rogelio A. Ramirez, 21, of Pasadena was killed Aug. 26, 2007, in an explosion in Iraq's Anbar province.

"He told me: 'If I don't come back I will be part of history.' And he was right. When family members look at the flag or hear about the war on TV they think of Rogelio," Irene Ramirez said. "He left his mark, he left his mark."

Diana Griffin's husband, Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Griffin Jr., 36, of Alhambra, was killed in combat March 21, 2007. Just this past Friday, she got a call from a nephew in Seattle. He told her he was looking at The Times' memorial website. When Griffin came to her husband's page, she wrote this:

"These are the words of my beloved husband sent to me four days before his death. . . . 'Dearest Diana, Spartan women of Greece used to tell their husbands before they went into battle to come back with their shields or laying on them, because they died honorably in battle, but if they did not return with them, this showed that they ran away from the battle, cowardice was not a Spartan virtue. Tell me you love me the same by me coming back with my shield or laying on it . . . I LOVE YOU MY SPARTAN WOMAN OF STRENGTH AND VIRTURE . . . Love, Darrell' . . . My husband a remarkable, intellectually brilliant Philosopher, the man who loved me beyond words . . . I will love him forever throughout eternity. 'STRENGTH & HONOR' my love."

Griffin said she had never before written anything publicly about his death. "It was just something in my heart," she said of leaving her memory. "This is a very emotional time for me, Memorial Day."

megan.garvey@latimes.com
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