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Adan Gonzales Jr. dies at 28; Marine sergeant from Bakersfield

In early August, Marine Corps Sgt. Adan Gonzales Jr. called his wife, Catalina, from Afghanistan, where he was assigned to a sniper platoon.

Gonzales’ mood was buoyant as he heard how his three kids were doing and the move the family was making into a new apartment in Bakersfield. His last words to Catalina were “I love you.”

Two days later, he was dead.

Gonzales, 28, was shot in the chest Aug. 7 during a firefight in southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, military officials said. Armed with a light machine gun, Gonzales was an infantryman attached to the sniper unit.

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“He was my hero. He had such a big heart,” said his mother, Yolanda Gonzales of Bakersfield. “My son went out of his way to help someone who was hurting. You know, they say that God always takes the good ones.”

Gonzales grew up in Bakersfield and graduated from Ridgeview High School, where he was on the wrestling team. He was an altar boy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and helped to organize youth retreats for the parish.

Later, he worked as a cabinetmaker and helped his father, Adan Sr., with his landscaping business during the summer. In May 2006, he enlisted in the Marines.

Yolanda Gonzales said her son was motivated by concerns about events in the Middle East and the slayings of Americans by Iraqi insurgents. He also believed that Iraqis and Afghans deserved the same rights as Americans, she said.

Gonzales excelled during his five years in the Marine Corps and moved steadily through the enlisted ranks. He served a tour of duty in Iraq and qualified for the Marine Corps’ elite sniper school after successfully completing the rigorous introductory course. His fellow Marines called him “Gonzo.”

“He loved the training. He loved boot camp,” said Catalina, who met Gonzales when she was 14. “I have a picture of a drill instructor yelling at my husband. He is smiling. That was him.”

In March, Gonzales was sent to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is based at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego.

Before leaving, he studied the language, culture and religion of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

In Afghanistan, Gonzales’ combat role contrasted with his desire to help the desperately poor families he came into contact with and to overcome the barriers that often existed between Marines and Afghans.

“He treated them with dignity,” his wife said.

She said her husband was especially sympathetic to Afghan women because he thought they were oppressed, and to the children because he saw his own kids in them.

In one letter to his grandmother, Gonzales asked her for prayers, not only for his fellow Marines but for “the innocent children that have to live day after day in this war zone.”

During services at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Aug. 16, Marine Cpl. Madison Jefferson, who was a member of the sniper unit, told several hundred mourners that Gonzales had a quiet strength and “let his actions speak on his behalf.”

Jefferson recalled that Gonzales helped to protect him after he was shot in the leg and tumbled into an irrigation canal during an ambush. The whole team formed a circle around him and a Navy corpsman tended his wounds.

As Jefferson was carried onto a helicopter for evacuation, one of the last things he remembered seeing was Gonzales firing at the enemy. He was “up on one knee with his squad automatic weapon,” Jefferson said, “doing his work.”

In addition to his wife and parents, Gonzales’ survivors include his children, Athena Cossette, 7, Catherine Alexandra, 3, and Noah Diego, 1; a sister, Nichole Gonzales-Chavez; four nephews; and a niece.

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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