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Honoring Marine as he wished

Before Marine Sgt. Matthew Mendoza left for each of his three deployments to the war zone, he told his father what he wanted done if he came back in a casket.

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Web Posted: 06/28/2008 11:59 PM CDT
By Nancy Martinez

On Saturday, Mendoza's wishes were faithfully carried out: a traditional service conducted by his fellow Marine “brothers”; a Catholic Mass at his church; burial at San Jose Burial Park next to his grandfather.

Mendoza, the father of a 6-year-old son, was killed June 20 in Afghanistan. His dedication and pride were evident to all who knew him. A few years ago, he returned to his alma mater, Highlands High School, with a Marine recruiter to talk of his love for the job.“He had a wonderful 24 years of life here that was cut short way too early,” said his father, Raul Mendoza. “As a sergeant his goal was to get all the men from his platoon back home. That was his No. 1 goal; he was going to do everything it took to make sure that happened. It took everything he had.”

The word “hero” was on the lips of many who honored Mendoza, but it wasn't what he considered himself.

“I'm not calling myself a hero but I'm in a platoon full of them,” he wrote on his MySpace page.

Father Daniel Cisneros, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church on the East Side, said he believed Mendoza was looking down from heaven, “overjoyed” with the turnout. About 600 people — young and old, friends, relatives and even strangers — gathered to pay their respects in the crowded church and at the cemetery in near 100-degree heat.

Rosie Esquivel, 73, stood at the back of the church, managing only a view of the backs of people's heads. She stood there, hands folded, praying. “It's very sad,” she said just after the Mass. “For a young man to give his life this way. He's a brave hero. ... There are no words.”

Cisneros punctuated the Mass with anti-war messages, saying, “If we loved one another, we would have no more pain, no more sorrows. Who pays for the war? Our young generation, our youth, they're the ones that go to war and give up their lives. War brings nothing but sadness.”

Relatives said that when people insulted President Bush, Mendoza would reply that he respected his “commander in chief.” And they said that after his first deployment to Iraq, Mendoza had a medical condition that could have kept him from deploying again, but he fought it because he wanted to return, serving two more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On his MySpace Web page, Mendoza wrote about his love for his wife, his son, family and friends. He said his wife and his parents were his heroes, and that his little boy was becoming more and more like him. He also wrote about his loyalty to the Marine Corps.

“I'm going to re-up and try to get stationed in Texas. We will see how that goes,” he wrote. “Pretty much I'm not the same kid I was 4 years ago. Life has a way of throwing things at you. You got to take (them) all on and never back down because the day you do they win.”

Not only did Mendoza help his family plan his funeral, he seemed to predict it on his MySpace page: “My wife gives me a face every time I say it but it true, I refuse to die in a bed. 'Nough said there.”

At the end of the Mass, Cisneros blessed the casket, then did something that surprised and pleased the mourners.

“From one Marine to another, I salute you,” the priest said, saluting.