Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Michael Rojas laid to rest

Laughter broke out Friday at the funeral for Army Cpl. Michael Matthew Rojas at the Valley Christian Center in Fresno.

Even as tears rolled freely down many faces, those there to honor Rojas couldn't help but laugh as an image of soldiers playing out a rodeo scene in Iraq rolled across a large movie screen.

The scene in the church was just as Rojas must have imagined it when he sat down and made his own funeral arrangements before departing for Iraq.

It wasn't that the 21-year-old believed he would die, said senior pastor Doug Ainley. It was just that he was organized.

"He learned to iron his own clothes at 5 years old," Ainley said. "When he was older, he combined that love of organization and his new love of Christ by playing the song 'Shout to The Lord' over and over again, sometimes to the dismay of those around him, as he cleaned his barracks room."

Family members said laughter was a big part of life for Rojas, and they weren't surprised that when he thought about his funeral, he made sure to insert some humor into what he knew would be a terrible day for those who loved him. He sent a video and dozens of photos home from Iraq, including a scene where a soldier jumps on another soldier's back like a rodeo cowboy. The video was part of the funeral plan Rojas left for his family.

"He was a pretty big clown," said Army Spc. Tony Erskin, who played football for Sanger High School when Rojas played for Clovis East, then served with him in Iraq. "There was nothing better than waking up in the morning in Iraq and seeing Michael outside in his boxers and nothing else saying, 'What's up?' to everyone around him."

Erskin is home on leave and will return to Iraq in two weeks. He said that it was easy to tell that Rojas came from a large family, because he bonded immediately with everyone around him.

"He loved his fellow soldiers, and always had a great sense of humor," Erskin said. "But no one I knew could compare to the way he reacted to things, or how he coped with things. There was nothing he couldn't handle."

Rojas, who graduated from Clovis East High School in 2004, is the fifth Clovis Unified School District graduate to die in Iraq.

He was killed along with another soldier from his unit on April 18 when a bomb detonated under their Humvee as they patrolled the streets of Taji, about 10 miles north of Baghdad.

Rojas was about 10 months into his tour in Iraq and was scheduled to come home this summer.

He is survived by his wife, Katrina Newschwander Rojas of Fort Lewis, Wash.; his mother, Debbie Apodaca; father David Esquivil; and stepfathers Sam Apodaca and David Cordova, all of Fresno. He had five sisters and one brother, and a large extended family.

At the candlelight vigil Wednesday, Katrina Rojas said her husband of eight months had a good sense of humor and was persistent. They met while he was stationed at Fort Lewis.

"It was that way even before we started dating. He had called and asked me out several times, and then finally said, 'This is the last call, Katrina. If you don't go out with me, I'm giving up.' I told him, 'Don't give up on me, Mikey,' and we went out that night. That was it. We were in love."

Ainley said that even though Rojas died at a young age, he left a strong legacy of love, faith and service.

"He loved sweets, and he loved sharing them with his younger brothers and sisters, and his nieces and nephews," Ainley said. "On Father's Day, he always got a card as well because he acted as a 'little daddy' to his sister."

That sister, 10-year-old Samantha Apodaca, read a poem she wrote for the service titled "My Brother:"

"Why did he have to go? I wish I could know. He promised he would come home, and now we all feel so alone."

Paula Camarena, Rojas' aunt, said her entire family is still suffering the loss of Michael but appreciates the support of the community. Hundreds attended the vigil, and more than 500 attended the funeral.

"I don't know how to even express the loss of Michael," Camarena said. "It has helped us, though, that so many people came to the funeral. It helps to see that Michael was loved and honored by so many."

Rojas had requested to be cremated. After the service in the church, a military honor guard escorted the flag-draped coffin to a nearby large grassy field where a 21-gun salute was fired and U.S. flags were presented to Katrina Rojas, Debbie Apodaca and Esquivil.

Each also received a set of Rojas' military decorations, which included the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

After the ceremony, Bill Rojas said that even as he mourned the death of his nephew, he was proud of his service.

"He was just a good kid. He left us young, but he had given his life to the Lord, and he gave his life for this country."

From the Fresno Bee

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