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A woman on a mission

Laura Herzog's life changed on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. That was the day a 21-year-old Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed in Afghanistan's Helmand province when an improvised bomb exploded underneath his Humvee.

Herzog was at her desk at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos the next day when she learned she would be assisting the family when the body was returned to California.

In the military, the process is called the dignified transfer of remains. Herzog calls it a hero mission. Seeing death so closely makes it a grueling task. It was the first time Herzog, a public affairs officer, would take charge of such a case.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: 'I had to do something'

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, what am I supposed to do?'" she said. "But I also remember thinking, 'No problem. I'll do what I have to do.'"

In time, even after losing her job amid Defense cutbacks, there would be more names, more families. Herzog didn't know it then, but helping grieving relatives would become her life's work.

But on that day, it was all about Lance Cpl. Justin Swanson. He was coming home.

JUSTIN J. SWANSON | 1988 - 2009

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Herzog drove to Swanson's family home in Anaheim. A single red rose shivered in her hands as she knocked.

"I remember feeling like my heart was going to explode out of my chest," she said.

Swanson's mother, Mary Hargrove, who had already been notified of her son's death, opened the door. Her eyes, full of gravity, quickly filled with tears.

Herzog helped her inside and listened. How the oldest of her four children would "never let you down," was the mentor to kids in the neighborhood, always had an easy smile. How his tour of duty was nearly up. How he would have been home for Christmas.

Hargrove pulled out a baby photo.

"All I could do was hug her," said Herzog, a mother of four herself.

Then, she got to work.

Swanson came home to an honor procession that stretched for miles. Hundreds of people lined the streets, many stepping out of their businesses to pay tribute. Preschool children stood with hands over their hearts as the hearse passed.

"It was the most incredible thing and the most devastating day of my life," Hargrove recalled. "There wasn't a doubt in anybody's mind that day that my son was a hero."

Herzog's job wasn't done, though. Days before that Christmas, a rainstorm blew into the Southland. She was running a fever and coughing. Yet all she could think of was that Swanson's family needed a Christmas tree. So she strapped one onto her SUV, bought red and gold ornaments, and drove to the house.

"She made sure that my kids had a Christmas," Hargrove said.

Herzog then connected Hargrove with support groups such as the Gold Star Mothers, a national organization of mothers who've lost a child on active duty.

"Because I was devastated, she hooked me up with people who were going through the same thing," said Hargrove, sitting in a room that honors her son. The walls are decorated with photos of him playing football at Buena Park High School, and his military boots and Marine helmet sit by the fireplace.

"You see, I have to find the good that came from my son's death," Hargrove said. "There has to be something more. I can honestly say if there's one thing that came out of it, it's that my kids have been able to see the kind side of people, starting with Laura."

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Retired Maj. Gen. John Harrel, Herzog's commander at the base, said she used her community connections to make her first case special. Before Herzog, the missions were "spartan" and "haphazard," Harrel said.

Herzog, 39, likes to credit what she affectionately calls "the puzzle palace" — her brain. She has a gift for remembering details and can tick off names of soldiers' relatives, their ranks and special dates in their lives. But those who know her credit something else.

"Laura's just one of those workaholic-type persons," said a former colleague, Staff Sgt. Bach Zavala. "You really don't see how hard she is working behind the scenes."

Still, her position was trimmed as part of the military's ongoing cutbacks. Her last official mission came on Jan. 25, 2011. Another 21-year-old, Army Spc. Jose Torre of Garden Grove, was killed in Iraq when insurgents attacked his unit with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Days later, Herzog stood at Riverside National Cemetery with Torre's family. It was then she realized that this could not be the end of her work with families.

She returned to her base office to pack, and wept. A month later, she launched the nonprofit Honoring Our Fallen to aid families of deceased service members.

"These families are serving too," Herzog said. "We need to be there for them."

The work is consuming. Hours blend into days, weeks into months. Connections can be lifelines.

"She never seems to have an off day," said Harrel, who serves as military advisor for the nonprofit. "She has a hundred irons in the fire at one time."

Sometimes, the connections between service members give her pause. That happened a few weeks ago, when Itzcoatl Ocampo, a 23-year-old former Marine, was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of four homeless men in Orange County.

Ocampo's family has said that when he came home from serving with his battalion in Iraq, he had changed. The combat death of his childhood friend, Marine Cpl. Claudio Patino IV, 22, seemed to further send Ocampo into an emotional tailspin, they said.

Patino, who like Ocampo was from Yorba Linda, died June 22, 2010, from small-arms fire in Afghanistan's Helmand province — the same province where Swanson, Herzog's first case, was killed. In fact, Patino had transferred units so he could redeploy to that province as a way to honor Swanson, who was a friend.

Patino had been another of Herzog's hero missions.

"The Marine Corps is like a brotherhood," she said.

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Through it all, one thought keeps her work in perspective.

"I'll never forget that if I come home to my family and my kids and my husband, there's somebody else out there that isn't coming home to that," she said.

Whether cleaning a gravestone for a mother who can't or taking home-cooked dinners to a widow, these are her families. Recently, she drove six hours north to deliver a son's belongings to his mother.

"If you don't know Laura, it kind of sounds too good to be true," Zavala said.

Although the military employs casualty assistance teams, they work with families for only a specific period , and their interaction is defined by regulation. Usually, the teams help with paperwork and logistics — they don't have time to reach out on a wedding anniversary or a birthday, as Herzog has done.

Her nonprofit relies on donations. Clients come her way through word of mouth; sometimes the military will contact her. To date, Herzog has helped a total of 35 families. In December, she assisted on a toy drive sponsored by Military Children's Charity, a Santa Ana-based organization that supports the children of service members. Days before Christmas, she was wrapping, shipping and even delivering presents, from Chula Vista to downtown Los Angeles.

"You have to give her credit because it's not something that I could do," said Cherie Navarro, the children's charity executive director. "For her to be able to do that, it takes a really strong person."

Herzog is perpetually moving and talking, phone at her ear. Husband Cory says he's impressed by her dedication, admitting: "It's hard for me to take it all in."

Michael Hulsey, 19, the oldest of her three sons, doesn't disagree.

"It's hard," said Hulsey, who said he may one day join the military. "I think it's cool because not many people do it. It takes a lot to do what she does, but she does it well."

For Herzog, it's all about the bonds. "You make a connection because you're helping the families out during the most difficult time in their life," she said.

Creating Honoring Our Fallen seemed only natural.

"In my mind," she said, "it was more like, 'How could I not start this?' Not why."

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With drill-sergeant efficiency, Herzog worked to get Army Pfc. Ramon Mora Jr.'s family lined up for a photo in October. "Get that cigarette out of your mouth," she ordered Mora's father.

Five months earlier, the 19-year-old from Ontario was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. His paternal grandparents, who raised him, were devastated.

But on this occasion, the family laughed as they followed Herzog's directions.

"Laura, we adopted her," grandfather Baltazar Mora, 69, said, patting Herzog's shoulder. "We're going to have to change her last name to Mora now."

Other gatherings haven't been so easy.

Last June in San Diego, 4-year-old Keane Lorenzo tugged on Herzog's suit jacket as he looked at his dad's coffin. Army Staff Sgt. Kristofferson Bernardo Lorenzo, 33, had died when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

"Why won't my daddy wake up?" he asked.

Wordlessly, Herzog reached into her purse and pulled out a tiny container of Play-Doh, a prize her 5-year-old son Zachary had won in school.

Now, she always carries Play-Doh.

Then came the second anniversary of Swanson's death. She set up a tent at Westminster Memorial Park with cake and pizza. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) presented Hargrove, the fallen man's mother, with a U.S. flag. Later, messages to Swanson were scrawled onto balloons.

The balloons were let go, and Herzog cried.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: 'I had to do something'

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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