In one photograph on his Facebook page, Army Spc. Koran P. Contreras is wearing black Clark Kent glasses and a big smile. An intricate tattoo proclaiming “Infantry” decorates his right shoulder. As usual, he is making someone laugh.
But in snapshots taken later on, after he was sent with his Army unit to Afghanistan, Contreras looks older. Out on patrol and dressed in full combat fatigues, the 21-year-old Lawndale infantryman shows a wary but determined face, weapons strapped over his shoulder.
His mother, Lilia Contreras, said she saw the change too. Her happy-go-lucky son, who loved hanging out with his skater buddies in Hermosa Beach, seemed to mature overnight after he joined the Army in April 2008.
She didn’t want him to enlist because of the danger, she said. But he persisted. On the day he told her he had followed through, he apologized, his mother said.
“He said, ‘Sorry, Mom. I have to grow up. This is what I want to do,’” she recalled in halting English. “ ‘I want to be a big man. I want to serve my country.’”
Contreras was on his second overseas tour, training Afghan police in southern Kandahar province, when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device Sept. 8. He and another soldier, Pfc. Douglas J. Jeffries Jr., 20, of Springville, northeast of Bakersfield, were killed.
In the two months since her son was buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery, Lilia Contreras has tried to focus on the happiness she had with him rather than his death.
He was born in Redondo Beach to Contreras and her husband, Marco Quiroz, Mexican immigrants who traveled back and forth across the border to find work. As a child, he went with his mother when she cleaned houses in other nearby communities, including Hermosa Beach.
He would wait outside for her, often taking off on his skateboard, she said. He grew to love Hermosa Beach and, as a teenager, made friends with other skateboarders. He followed a local punk rock band and could always be counted on to help out in a fix, friends said on his Facebook memorial page.
After graduating from Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, he worked as a cook and server at Cafe Boogaloo and Shark’s Cove in Hermosa Beach. Some of his friends in the community have banded together to raise money for a memorial on the Hermosa pier, a place where his family can go to sit.
Contreras did not much like the restaurant work and was determined to do something different with his life, his mother said. He wanted to serve in the military and then apply for a job with the Los Angeles Police Department, she said.
After training at Ft. Benning, Ga., Contreras was assigned first to Ft. Hood, Texas, and in April 2010 to Ft. Drum, N.Y., where he was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, specializing in mountain warfare and harsh climates.
He served in Iraq from January to December 2009. His unit was deployed to Afghanistan this March.
In addition to his wife and mother, he is survived by his father and his 8-year-old brother, Anthony Contreras-Quiroz.
His mother said it’s the little things she misses most. When her son was home, they would sit at the breakfast table, coffee mugs in hand, and laugh over silly things.
“That’s my special memory,” she said.