Garza: Friends said he approached life `like a Marine' even before he enlisted.
TEMPERANCE - Yesterday morning, a statue of Saddam Hussein toppled to the ground in the center of Baghdad. Crowds of Iraqis cheered and chanted. They weren't shot. They weren't hauled away by Saddam's secret police. For the first time in 24 years, they felt free. Half a world away, off a dirt road in the heartland of America, in a little gray house, a family wept. They cried for a fallen Marine who made it possible for the Iraqis to cheer.
TEMPERANCE - Yesterday morning, a statue of Saddam Hussein toppled to the ground in the center of Baghdad. Crowds of Iraqis cheered and chanted. They weren't shot. They weren't hauled away by Saddam's secret police. For the first time in 24 years, they felt free.
Half a world away, off a dirt road in the heartland of America, in a little gray house, a family wept. They cried for a fallen Marine who made it possible for the Iraqis to cheer.
A high school picture of Juan Guadelupe Garza, Jr., with the plump cheeks, hangs on his family's living room wall. On a nearby table was a picture of Pfc. Juan Guadelupe Garza, Jr., 20, a rugged soldier for the 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment.
“He lost a lot of weight at boot camp. He was a little chubby in high school, but they turned him into a lean, mean fighting machine,” said Jodi Bucher, Juan's aunt.
Almost seven months after graduating from boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, Private Garza was killed by an Iraqi sniper in Baghdad at around 8 a.m. Tuesday. On the same day, Army Pfc. Jason Meyer, 23, of Howell, Mich., died in Iraq.
Private Garza's wife, Casey, 19, wearing a ball cap with her red ponytail stuffed out the back, dabbed her eyes as she flipped through a pile of pictures of her husband - they've only been married since Dec. 26. There's the picture of Juan at age 6, standing rigidly with the military fatigue cap atop his head.
At age 6, Juan wears a fatigue cap and stands at attention. He always wanted to be a Marine, his wife said.
“He always wanted to be a Marine,'' Casey said. “He loved the corps. His answering machine said `Semper Fi, do or die. This is Garza, leave a message.'”
There's the picture of Juan with Ms. Bucher's three children, Andrew, 11 months; Allison, 3, and Ashleigh, 5.
“All the kids in our family are less than 9, and Juan would always wrestle and rough-house with them,” Jill Bucher, Jodi's sister, said. “They were always rough on us adults. We'd always say, `Geez, I wish Juan were here.'”
Born in San Benito, Texas, Private Garza lived with his Aunt Jodi in Temperance for the last five years. She and her husband, Michael, assumed legal guardianship of him after his mother ran into personal problems and his life threatened to spiral out of control.
“He came a long, long way. When he came to us, he was a misguided teen, academically struggling, but he had a big heart and wanted to better himself,” Jodi Bucher said.
“He was very outgoing and a lovable person, even though he'd screw up,” Jill Bucher said. “He'd have a way of moving his way back into your good graces with that big smile.”
Pfc. Juan Guadelupe Garza's wife, Casey, left, wears her husband's high school football jersey in memory of him as family members console one another. The couple got married Dec. 26.
Jodi, a teacher in the Summerfield district, enrolled him at Summerfield High School so her fellow teachers could keep a close eye on him.
“After he went there, he said. `You know, I'm the only Mexican here,'” Jodi said, laughing through a facial tissue she'd been using to dab her eyes. “But it didn't take him long. He was a social butterfly.”
Classes were a struggle for Juan. His goal was to be the first Garza to graduate from high school - he did it. He failed his Marine entrance exam the first time he took it. But he persevered and passed it the second time. The word perseverance was mentioned a lot during the day - as were loyalty, and friendly, and popular - in describing Private Garza. The calls never seemed to stop coming into his aunt's home.
Outside Summerfield High School, the flag was at half-staff. Inside, students and alumni who had been close to the former football player and track team member shared their grief at his loss.
“He couldn't stay in one place for long,” said Ryan Ciacelli, 18, a classmate who is now a freshman at Monroe County Community College and who had stayed in close contact with Private Garza. “Ever since I've known him, he's wanted to be a Marine.”
Private Garza's classmates wept openly at the loss of “John,” whom they said approached life “like a Marine” even before he enlisted.
Summerfield technology director Bob Hower put together a 21/2-minute montage about the 2002 Summerfield graduate that was shown in every classroom shortly before school was dismissed for the day. Portraits of Private Garza from earlier in his life mingle with patriotic images on the television screens as Paul McCartney's “Freedom” masks the emotion-laced sniffles of classrooms of teens.
“He had to make people laugh every day. His goal was to make people happy,” said Jason Latting, 19, of Petersburg, one of the 65 members of Private Garza's graduating class at Summerfield.
That sense of humor was a recurring theme as people talked about his life. His wife, wearing his high school football jersey as she flipped through the pictures, told of how she was drawn to his humor while working at the local Wendy's.
“He was so funny,” she said before a brief pause. “He was the love of my life. The best person anyone could ask for. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do now. We had all these plans, goals, things we wanted to do. We hadn't even been married for four months.”
They both entered the military. She is an Army private who has been stationed at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland.
In Baghdad, many Iraqis are experiencing their first night of freedom. Saddam Hussein no longer stands watch over the city. For that, Jodi Bucher said, Pfc. Juan Guadelupe Garza, Jr. “would be proud.''
Staff writer Larry Vellequette contributed to this report.