Sunday, July 15, 2007

Juan Garcia-Schill remembered

The young Marine serving in the dangerous, dusty world of war-torn Iraq was clearly tickled with the goodies he received out of the blue.

"Muchimas gracias for sending the care package!" Lance Cpl. Juan Manuel Garcia-Schill, 20, wrote Maria Saldivar in Plano, Texas. "My good friend Jose Sanchez and I took to it like children to candy!

"We use the hand sanitizer all the time," added the Marine, a 2005 graduate of Grants Pass High School. "We greatly appreciate the cup of noodles. They are preferred amongst the Marines. I swear that they are like currency here and I'm rich."

He also thanked her for the other items, from toothbrushes to tuna.

"Enough about our slobbering over your kindness," he continued. "I would like to let you know that we are more indebted to you than you could be towards us."

Saldivar received the letter via regular mail on June 27. "His letter was very moving, full of gratitude — I was so happy to get it," she said.

"But last Saturday (July 7), when I got online to see if he had posted anything new, it said he was gone."

Four days after her letter arrived, the lance corporal, known fondly by friends and family as "Manuel," was killed. He died July 1 during combat operations in Anbar Province in Iraq, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Ist Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Although the Department of Defense listed his name as Juan Manuel Garcia-Schill, as did an obituary submitted by his maternal family that ran Tuesday in the Mail Tribune, he was known in high school as Juan Manuel Garcia. He also signed the letter with that surname.

"You don't realize how something like this is going to affect you," said Saldivar, 22, who said she cried when she learned of the Marine's death.

Never mind she had never met him, that she had just picked his name randomly to send a care package. For her, his letter had put a human face on statistics she had read about the war.

His death brings to more than 3,610 the number of Americans in uniform who have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to The Associated Press. That number includes 61 from Oregon.

"It didn't seem fair — he was just 20 years old," Saldivar said. "I spent all day Saturday and Sunday trying to find people who knew him."

She is among a network of people from Texas to the West Coast whose lives had been touched by the young man with the engaging personality.

In Suisun City, Calif., Angelica Zaldivar, 20, now a homemaker raising two children, will never forget the boy she met in math class in the eighth grade at North Middle School in Grants Pass. He had just moved to Grants Pass from Klamath Falls, where he was born.

"That evening I went to my tae kwon do class and there he was," Zaldivar recalled of the boy she knew as Garcia who would earn his black belt in the martial art by his junior year at Grants Pass High. "We started talking and ended up becoming good friends."

They were there for each other in good times and bad, she said.

"When he first moved to Grants Pass, he had a lot of issues to deal with in his own life," she said. "He opened up and I helped him through it. When I had my hard times, he was there for me. He protected me like a big brother would protect his little sister.

"He also liked to laugh and have a good time," she added. "But when it came down to holding onto his values and what he believed in, he always stood strong for that. He wouldn't change them to be popular."

That friendship was placed on hold when she moved to California with her family in the 10th grade. But it resumed this past January when they began exchanging messages via e-mail.

"He left for Iraq in February so we never got to hang out," she said. "I remember one e-mail I sent him when we were reminiscing and I said I wish we could go back in time. He told me those moments are alive forever, as long as you hold them in your heart."

Speaking with a maturity beyond his years was the Marine's trademark, said Grants Pass resident Jim Maloney, 62, a retired hearing aids specialist. Maloney came to know him as a fellow parishioner at St. Anne Catholic Church in Grants Pass.

"From the moment I met that young man I knew there was something very special about him," Maloney said. "He was a very outgoing, likeable young man. He was a good kid who always put others first.

"He seemed like the type of person who was a Marine even before he got in uniform," he added. "It was always, 'Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am.' When I asked him why he was joining the Corps, he said it was to serve his country and help people."

There was no doubt he knew the risks he faced when joining the military, Maloney observed.

"I meet so many young people who have no clue but it was very clear to him the risks he would be taking," Maloney said, noting he last saw Garcia just before he went to basic training.

"I gave him a rosary and told him I would pray for him," Maloney recalled. "He said, 'Don't pray for me. Pray for my father. We've never been apart and this will be very difficult for him.'" Attempts to reach Garcia's father for this story were unsuccessful.

Maloney's wife, Sally, saw the Marine late last year when he was back in Grants Pass on leave before being deployed to Iraq. He told her he carried the rosary in his shoulder pocket of his combat gear.

"He was a young man with a remarkable ability to connect with other people," Maloney said. "He was 20 years old when he passed away but he talked like someone who had been on this earth much longer. He had so much promise."

Maloney stopped talking for a moment to think about the young man he had known.

"It's very painful to talk about him," he concluded softly. "The best thing we can do now is honor his memory."

Bill Cowell, U.S. history and government teacher at Grants Pass High School, agreed. Garcia volunteered in an after-school program to help younger students learn Spanish and how to play soccer.

"He was very thoughtful, very friendly and always had a great smile when you saw him," said Cowell, who said he was extremely saddened to learn of Garcia's death.

"When he came to school with his uniform on (late last year), I shook his hand and congratulated him on how well he was doing," Cowell recalled. "You could tell he was very proud of being a Marine."

Like others who met him along the way, Maria Saldivar felt an immediate, strong connection with the man who sent her the thoughtful letter.

She and co-workers Carol Langille and Cheryl Nu had selected his name randomly on, a Web site listing thousands of service men and women hoping to receive care packages. Packing it with everything on his wish list, from noodles to toothbrushes, the three, who work as telephone operators at a hospital, mailed it in April.

"Out of all of the people on the list, we picked Juan," Saldivar said. "It was the first care package I had ever sent (to anyone in Iraq) and the first letter."

In addition to thanking them profusely, the Marine also responded to the introductory letter Saldivar had sent. Her letter included the fact she was working at two small newspapers while completing her degree in journalism.

"Journalism is a way for the informed to stay on top of current events, gossipers to know all the 'dirt' about stars/famous people and for people like me to grasp a general concept of what is happening at home," he wrote. "I also think that is great that you thought about criminal justice ... that says a lot about your views on crime and your stance between good and evil."

Before signing off with a "God bless you," he invited her to write.

"Should you decide to write back, don't worry about being formal with the whole LCpl. Garcia thing," he added in a post script. "And thanks for the toothbrushes. They help keep our mouths and rifles clean."

After receiving an e-mail on June 27 from Langille that she had received a thank-you letter from the Marine, Saldivar found one in her mailbox that evening. Before leaving on vacation that weekend, Langille suggested they send a second care package when she returned.

Impressed by his humor and wit, Saldivar wrote him a long letter. She was about to send it along with photographs when she learned he had been killed.

"We had picked him so randomly," Saldivar said, reiterating she was devastated to learn of his death. "But I'm so glad he got the care package and knew someone cared."

From the Mail Tribune

Related Link:
Juan M. Garcia Schill dies 'while conducting combat operations'