Good Night, Marine!
Rogelio Ramirez: A hero comes home to rest
Usually, when the word "hero" is mentioned, my generation is used to conjuring up images of John Wayne, Sylvester "Rambo" Stallone, or (pre-governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger easily disposing hundreds of bad guys for the good of everybody, Mom, and apple pie, with barely a scratch to show for it.
Published on LatinoLA: October 4, 2007
As an honorably discharged U.S. Marine and U.S. Army Soldier, military life has taught me that heroes are not born, but made...and the process is not easy or quick by any means, and never without pain and sacrifice.
Words like pride,honor, and loyalty carry more weight than gold among those who have worn an American military uniform while prepared to step into in harm's way at a moment's notice.
Others who don't understand that last statement...never will.
Here then, is a story about a young hero who epitomized honor, pride, and loyalty, earned the love & respect of family and friends from an early age, earned a first class ticket to heaven...and has forever changed my stereotype idea of what a hero is or should be.
Rogelio "Ro" Ramirez was born and raised in Pasadena, California. A happy, healthy, albeit physically small boy of Mexican and El Salvadorian heritage who always smiled, Rogelio's first real world experiences were that of being picked on by older, larger kids because of his size.
"He was teased and taunted a lot," his mother, Irene Ramirez, remembers. "He was little, and got picked on a lot. Once, some boys stuffed him into a trash can and left him there. Rogelio used to come home from school crying often...he just couldn't understand what he had ever done to make kids pick on him so much. "But he always smiled nonetheless," she remembers with a tear in her eyes.
Despite his tough young life, Rogelio continued going to school every day, as disappointing his mother was something he didn't want to do. He managed to make many friends despite being picked on by bullies. "He used to be teased as a momma's boy because he always told me 'I love you Mom', in front of others. I used to always tell him 'I love you too. Remember, it's not what you look like, but how you carry yourself in life that will make people respect you', and he would look into my eyes with such love and respect, that I knew he would be special to others one day...you could just tell".
Rogelio's mother cleaned houses to make ends meet, and Irene remembers an owner of several houses that hired her was a physically small man who commanded respect simply by the way he carried himself. "He always held his head up ,and walked with such confidence and dignity. He impressed me, and I often told Rogelio how this man could just walk into a room and command attention. Rogelio liked the fact that he was short, too. He wanted to be like that."
Despite going to school and doing well, Rogelio grew up angry at being constantly picked on. In time, he began to stand up for himself, consequently becoming a skilled debater when he wasn't defending himself against bullies. When his parents divorced, the anger turned to rage and his grades and self esteem began to slump.
One day, a larger boy picked the wrong day to pick on "little" Rogelio, and Rogelio tore into the kid in a schoolyard fight that surprised everybody when the larger boy was publicly taught a well-deserved lesson. Because of the viciousness of Rogelio's counter attack, a favorite teacher and a counselor personally called Irene to find out what had changed "little Ro" into such a scrapper.
Having his mother explain the divorce to others as a possible cause for his slumping grades and seething anger convinced Rogelio he had embarrassed her enough, and he subsequently eliminated his truancy problems by simply dropping out. One of his few friends was his grandfather, Cesario Najar, a compassionate man who stepped in and gave Rogelio the love and direction of a man a young boy needs at a troubling point in his young life. Rogelio simply adored his grandfather Cesario, who was a positive male role model, and he was adored back.
But then his grandfather unexpectantly died, and Rogelio suffered yet another devastating setback in his young life. His interest in life began to wane, he began running the mean streets of L.A., angry and without purpose, but he was visibly impressed at the amount and calibre of people who attended his grandfather's funeral, and wanted to be honored like that one day. Despite the call of the wild to the disenfranchised, Rogelio never joined a gang.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Rogelio came home one day and announced to his mother
"I want to be a Marine." Having lived a short time in Oceanside, California, right outside the U.S. Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton, Rogelio idolized the Marines he saw, admired the way they looked and carried themselves, and wanted to become one of them rather than continue his spiral downward.
But, as the Marine Corps has been proud of saying for many years "We don't want everyone...just a few good men," the saying came back to haunt Rogelio, and he was initially rejected because of his past. This rejection only increased the young man's resolve to prove he was "good enough" for the Marine Corps.
"You should have seen the look in his eyes when the recruiter told him he could still qualify himself to be able to the join the Marine Corps, but it would take some hard work and a little more time. The fire and desire in my little boy's eyes was that of a man coming of age", his mother says proudly, "Nothing was going to keep Rogelio out of the Marines...I knew that. Out of a mother's worry, I tried talking him into joining the Navy or Coast Guard, something I thought safer, but he wasn't going anywhere but the Marines".
Putting a series of tasks in front of Rogelio designed to either improve his standing in society or knock him down, such as getting his High School G.E.D and diploma, college credits, removing tattoos deemed inappropriate, and paying off almost $2,000.00 in unpaid tickets & fines, Rogelio aggressively knocked down every obstacle the Corps put in front of him while working at McDonald's and attending night school, until after over 2 years of struggling and never giving up.... there was nothing left for the Corps to do but welcome their newest brother with open arms.
"He was so proud that he had tripled the expectations of his recruiter during the military entrance exam. He rushed into the house proclaiming 'Mom! I did it! I'm going to be a Marine!'...he was so proud of his accomplishment that I cried for joy for him. Size was never going to be a problem for him ever again".
When he left for Marine Corps boot camp, Irene and his father Jose said goodbye to an enthusiastic boy.
3 months later, they welcomed back a rock hard, matured young man....A U.S. MARINE!
"He looked so handsome and proud in his uniform when he came back. He loved it. He used to say that he got in trouble for smiling so much, and was given extra physical punishment. He showed them all he could handle it, and he did! The extra physical training really filled him out. He impressed everybody so much with his spirit and heart that nobody ever picked on him again. He opted for the rigors of Marine Corps Infantry, and I was always so proud of him when he would call me and tell me 'Mom! I did it' as he passed each phase of gunner training. He would come home on weekends tired, sore, and limping...but still smiling. His only concern was that he might not make it. He had taken the Marine Corps warrior-brotherhood ethos to heart, and failing was not part of his vocabulary anymore...and he lived it everyday. Everybody knew he was going to make it...everybody."
Shortly after completing Infantry training, he received his orders to ship out to the war in Iraq right after his 21st birthday.
"He was scared, but he wanted to go", his father Jose says. "He wanted to serve his Country. He was proud of his Mexican~American and El Salvadorian heritage, but he was even prouder to be a U.S. Marine. He wanted to prove that Latinos have a place in this Country as an equal to anybody. He had proved to everybody that he was good enough. He was proud to be part of a team that commanded respect around the World, and he used to say he was doing this for all of us".
I could see the tears of overwhelming pride from a father who will miss his beloved son for the rest of his life, and it seemed to me at that moment, that Rogelio must have been 10 feet tall to everybody that knew him.
"He used to say that the Marines are the tip, and not the handle, of the sword, and that's what he wanted to be a part of " his mother says tearfully, as she comes to the most difficult part of our interview.
"He knew what was happening in Iraq, and what might might happen to him...but because of the Marines, he felt an obligation to his buddies and his Country, and he had learned a long time ago never to back down from anything or anybody....it's almost as if he was born to be a Marine".
"He went to Iraq willingly, just after his 21st birthday. Scared but brave, he distinguished himself in combat as a turret gunner with the 1st Marine Division shortly after arriving, I was told, providing protective automatic fire at risk to himself, in the midst of a 3 hour battle, after being ambushed while on a convoy. He was able to effectively silence 2 enemy machine guns and provide cover for other wounded Marines in the middle of a night battle, and did so with deadly accuracy, probably saving many lives that night.. He became everybody's buddy and hero after this, and gained the manly respect he deserved from so many brother Marines in the combat zone. On his last mission, his commander told me that he watched Rogelio, whom he called 'Ro~Jo', climb into his vehicle, smiling as always, reassuring his buddies everything would be alright. But once Rogelio donned his combat equipment and strapped himself in as a turret gunner behind his machine gun, the transformation from a smiling young man to a professional Marine on a mission was dramatic and impressive. He liked and respected Rogelio for the brave Marine warrior he had become, and he remembers Rogelio's last mission clearly."
While being given the luxury of rest and downtime, Rogelio volunteered to go on this mission with a unit that was short a few men...and on this mission, on Sunday, August 26th, 2007, he was killed as the 9 vehicle convoy he was riding in was ambushed, and his vehicle was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device), killing Rogelio instantly.
When the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared...Private First Class Rogelio Antonio Ramirez was the only one who lay dead, prompting tears and anguish from the battle hardened Marines...they had lost "Ro~Jo".
"His Commander and some of his buddies who served with him personally contacted me, telling me what a good Marine my son was, and how brave he was," his mother Irene sighs tearfully but proudly. "He was posthumously promoted to Lance Corporal and awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy-Marine Corps Medal with Combat Distinguished device...but Rogelio was a hero to everyone who knew him even before he joined the Marines. He was my son, and he made me proud all of his life...he was my hero from the day he was born. His girlfriend is 3 months pregnant right now. They were going to get married and start a new family, a new life, when he got back... now all we have is a proud memory."
The parents proudly shared photos with me of a young, smiling, handsome Marine in uniform. Tanned, muscular, and square shouldered, piercing eyes, head up, and with a proud, confident smile that reflects the best our Country has to offer...a U.S. MARINE!
...I couldn't help but think to myself, "This was NO short kid. This was a man!"
Lance Corporal Rogelio Antonio Ramirez, United States Marine Corps, was buried with full Military Honors in his hometown of Pasadena, California. He deserved that...and the Marine Corps saw to that.
Rest easy, Carnalito. You've earned it...
As one Marine to another...thanks, man...thanks for being there for all of us...
As a lyric in the time honored Marine Corps hymn goes "...If the Army or the Navy ever look on Heaven's scenes...they will find the streets are guarded...by United States Marines!..."
...and I know....a brave young Marine named "Ro~Jo" Ramirez is standing his post proudly among others as noble as he!
SEMPER FI !!
Frankie Firme encourages all condolences to Rogelio Ramirez's mother Irene at email@example.com