Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Alex (Alejandro R.) Varela dies of 'wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle'

When Pfc. Alejandro "Alex" R. Varela called from Iraq to ask Rinda Pope what she wanted for Mother's Day, she replied that hearing his voice was the most precious gift she could receive.

But her son insisted on getting her a present. Finally, he announced he would buy her an iPod -- in pink -- and have it sent to her Orangevale home.

The package arrived Saturday -- several hours before two Army officers knocked on her door with word that Varela had died while fighting in Baghdad. He was one of six U.S. soldiers killed Saturday when a bomb detonated near their armored vehicle, Pentagon officials said. He was 19.

"As soon as I saw them, I knew, I knew, I just knew what it was," Pope recalled Tuesday. "I just kept saying, 'No, no, no.' "

Varela, who began a three-year enlistment last year, died seven months after arriving in Iraq. He was an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

In November, his mother said, he was injured in fighting when a bullet that failed to pierce his body armor left him with a cracked rib. Since then, he expressed misgivings about being in Iraq and wanted to return home, his parents said.

"He wasn't comfortable over there," said his father, Roger Varela. "But he was an American hero. He was my hero."

Family members recalled a sweet, playful boy with a booming voice who always smiled and laughed. Born in 1988 in Roseville, Alejandro Varela lived with his mother and a brother and sister after his parents divorced in 1990. They moved to Folsom and Citrus Heights before settling in Orangevale.

He attended Sunrise Elementary School, Louis Pasteur Middle School and San Juan High School before transferring to Casa Roble High School in 2003. He "was not the best student," but he was outgoing and popular with classmates, his mother said.

"He made friends, no matter where he went or who he talked to," Pope said.

Varela played Little League baseball in Citrus Heights, took karate classes in Roseville and enjoyed fishing and bowling with his grandfather. He loved playing Xbox and PlayStation video games with friends, including all-night Halo contests. His favorite activity was riding all-terrain vehicles, or "quads," with buddies in the Nevada desert.

"He was just a typical, All-American kid," his father said.

Alejandro Varela was 17 when he and a buddy signed up together to join the Army, his mother said.

A year later, she said, he went to live with his father in Fernley, Nev., and earned a General Educational Development diploma in Nevada before starting boot camp in April 2006. He was excited to serve his country and looked forward to future job opportunities, including careers in photography or video.

"I cried, but I told him I was proud of him," said his grandmother, Ramona DeHart. "You can't disillusion him. I knew it was bad over there, but I prayed every day to God to protect him."

Intense fighting and squalid conditions in Baghdad changed his outlook, his parents said. But Varela felt safe with his unit and never wavered from his commitment to the Army and his fellow soldiers, his mother said. His military awards and decorations include the National Defense Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the Basic Marksmanship Badge.

"He was learning Arabic and made lots of friends," Pope said. "He knew how to make his buddies laugh and relieve tension. Everybody loved him."

From the Sacramento Bee