Friday, April 20, 2007

Mario K. De Leon dies of 'wounds sustained from enemy small arms fire'

A soldier from Rohnert Park was the second Sonoma County man to die in two weeks while fighting in Iraq.

Sgt. Mario “Kawika” Deleon, 26, was killed by sniper fire Monday while on patrol in Baghdad, according to the Defense Department.

Deleon was raised in Petaluma but recently lived in Rohnert Park. He leaves behind a wife, Erika, and son, Keoni, 2.

Deleon is the eighth North Coast soldier to die in the Iraq war since its start in March, 2003.

The military announced the death Tuesday, saying Deleon was killed by small arms fire. He served in the Army’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.

Erika Deleon of Rohnert Park last spoke with her husband Sunday, a day before receiving word of his death. She said she was keenly aware of the death of Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, of Santa Rosa, who was killed April 8 by sniper fire.

“I was reading about that, praying to God my husband wouldn’t go through that,” the 24-year-old said tearfully.

“The last couple of times I talked to him he was actually really tired. He sounded exhausted. He would just call me to say, ‘I love you,’ ” she said.

“He did mention a whole bunch of times that he only had a couple of hours to sleep and then he needed to go back in the field,” Deleon said.

“I told him, ‘You’re risking you’re life. You should be able to sleep more,’ ” she said.

The couple tried to talk as often as they could.

“He would try to call me once a day or as he could. We talked a lot. Making sure we kept contact. My baby would see him through the computer, the Webcam. My baby would see him.”

She could tell he was ready to come home. “He was hoping to come home in June,” Erika Deleon said.

Deleon had been in Iraq since October. He was home in December for two weeks but had to return on Christmas Eve, she said.

“I was just so thankful he was home, especially during the holidays.”

Typically upbeat, family members noticed he was somewhat subdued for his holiday visit.

His mother made it out from Indiana in December to see her son, who was the youngest of her three children.

She was expected to return today or tomorrow for her son’s funeral, Erika Deleon said.

Details of a service are pending.

The young woman described her husband as a warm, playful person who kept current with changes in popular music and always had some tunes on.

“He brought light into everybody’s life. He was goofy. He was a clown. He always made everybody smile. He would pinch cheeks, give them a high five, always putting nicknames on people,” she said.

Deleon, known by the Hawaiian name “Kawika,” was promoted to sergeant less than a month ago.

“We were very proud,” Erika Deleon said.

He joined the Army right after high school at Casa Grande High in Petaluma and served four years. He left the service when his father died, she said.

The young couple met while both were students at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“He decided to rejoin. That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted military life. And we’d have the benefits and financially we would be good.”

Deleon also wanted to travel.

“He wanted me to go with him. I’ve never been in military life or anything so I wanted to try too, to see how it was,” she said. “But now he’s gone...”

When Deleon rejoined the military, he went to the Air Force military reserve. He later switched back to the Army, she said.

He was assigned to a the 1st Infantry Division, known as the “Big Red One" for the patch soldiers wear on their arm. It is based at Fort Riley, Kansas.

He’d been gone from his family just over a year.

The Army first sent him to Germany in February 2006 and then on to Iraq in the fall.

His body will be sent home later in the week, military officials told her.

“I’m waiting to hear from them,” she said.

Deleon would have been 27 years old in May.

“I just hope people realize we need to end this,” Erika Deleon said. “The troops need to get out of there.”

From the Press Democrat