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Army Staff Sgt. Esau I. De La Peña-Hernandez, 25, La Puente; killed in Afghanistan

When the slide show flashed a photo of a line of Marines in camouflage fatigues, the solemn chapel in Covina erupted in laughter.

There stood 5-foot-4 Esau Ivan De La Peña-Hernandez, sandwiched between recruits a good foot taller than he, facing forward with his signature pluck and bravado.

De La Peña was a little guy, but he had a big heart to go with his big name, friends and family members said at his memorial service.

“He saved my life in Iraq, and I’m standing here because of him,” said Steven Komin, a 27-year-old Marine veteran who fought with De La Peña in 2004 in Fallouja, west of Baghdad, in one of the toughest battles of the Iraq war. “He was the type of person, whether you’re in a hot jungle or a dry desert, he’d give you his last sip of water.”

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De La Peña, 25, was killed May 15 while serving as an Army staff sergeant in Afghanistan. He was one of two soldiers who died at Forward Operating Base Shank in Lowgar province of injuries suffered when their unit was attacked with small-arms fire while on foot patrol in Chak in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul. The attack also killed Army Sgt. Carlie M. Lee III, 23, of Birmingham, Ala.

De La Peña was assigned to the , 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry)2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Ft. Drum, N.Y.

Known as Esau to his immediate family, Ivan to family friends and “De La” to his military buddies, De La Peña was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. as a teenager. He grew up in La Puente, playing soccer at La Puente High School and pick-up basketball at a nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Harold Meza, 26, who knew De La Peña from church, remembered his friend sticking it to taller guys even back then. “He didn’t know how to play basketball, but when he was on that court, he was up and down that court, stealing everything,” Meza said.

The two friends decided to enlist in the military at the same time in 2001 and picked the Marine Corps because it seemed the toughest.

“His thing was, even though he was from Mexico, he loved this country and he wanted to serve it,” said Meza, now a sergeant in the Marine Corps. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred after the two men enlisted, but hardened their resolve.

In the Marines, De La Peña served in the Philippines and Iraq. Looking for further challenges, he joined the Army in 2006, his family said. As a soldier, he deployed twice to Afghanistan.

De La Peña was killed on his fourth combat tour, family members said. He loved the brotherhood he found in the service and saw himself as a career military man.

During his career, he earned nearly two dozen ribbons and medals, including the Bronze Star for courage in combat in Afghanistan. The family knew he was doing well in the military, but they were surprised when they heard about all of his honors, said his sister, Denise De La Peña, 24. “He wanted to be the best, but he wasn’t a show-off,” she said.

The last time family members talked to him was May 10, when De La Peña called his mother to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. Leticia De La Peña said she always worried about her son because of what she saw on the news, but as usual, he tried to reassure her.

“I’m OK,” he told her. “I’ll call you soon.”

When the Army informed her of her son’s death, she said, she found strength in thinking of his determination and hard work ethic. “I feel very proud of him because he died doing what he loves,” she said.

On May 26, so many mourners came to pay their respects at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Covina that many of them had to peer into the chapel from the front steps.

In choked English and Spanish, about a dozen friends and family members took turns speaking about De La Peña’s reassuring smile and his corazon de oro, or heart of gold.

The Foo Fighters’ song “My Hero” came over the speakers as a slide show rolled through pictures of De La Peña hugging his family, goofing around with Marine buddies and fishing for salmon. The last photo showed him in a military vehicle, looking calm, his sunglasses on as he flashed a victory sign.

In addition to his mother and sister, De La Peña is survived by his wife of nearly six years, Joyce; his father, Mario; and a brother, Bryan.

jia-rui.chong@latimes.com


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