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THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Third Graduate Is Killed, And Another Plaque Is About To Go Up At Brentwood High
By PATRICK HEALY
September 29, 2004
PHOTO: Ed Betz for The New York Times
Ramon Mateo, 20, died in a roadside bombing on Friday after he returned to Iraq from home leave earlier this month. His mother, Luz Rivera, left, mourned his death yesterday at the family home in Brentwood, N.Y.
BRENTWOOD, N.Y., Sept. 27 - The wall of honor is easy to miss. It is nothing more than a little space in the lobby of Brentwood High School, decorated with two plaques. But these days, people look at the wall and wish it were still blank.
When a graduate was killed in an ambush in Iraq in July 2003, the school hung a memorial plaque on the wall. In March, a second Brentwood High graduate died in a firefight in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. Again, the school hung a plaque.
Now a new wood-and-brass plaque will join the wall where Sgt. Michael Esposito and Pfc. Raheen Heighter are remembered. Lance Cpl. Ramon Mateo, 20, class of 2002, was killed in a roadside bombing on Friday as his security patrol drove through Al Anbar Province in Iraq.
After Corporal Mateo is buried, the school will hold a memorial service. Friends and local politicians will speak. The school choir will sing. Photographs will be displayed. And the plaque will be added.
"We're quite practiced at this," said the school's principal, Thomas O'Brien.
In few high schools are the rhythms of loss more familiar than the hallways of Brentwood High School, a working-class school that is one of the largest and poorest on Long Island. Every year, 15 to 30 students join the military after graduating. For some, Mr. O'Brien said, it is a springboard. For others, a last option.
For Corporal Mateo, the Marine Corps was a way to learn more about fixing cars and trucks and earn money so he could go to college, his family said. He did not join because of his beliefs about politics or the war on terrorism, his family said, but because he wanted to get a business degree and own a mechanic's shop.
"He was trying to do whatever he could to move up," said his older sister, Sonia Rivera. "He wanted to show everybody what he could make of himself."
Corporal Mateo's family described him as an eager marine, but a reluctant fighter. He was an R.O.T.C. student in high school and took time off to recruit other students from Brentwood, but when he returned home on leave this month he told his family he did not want to go back to Iraq.
"He definitely didn't want to be there," Ms. Rivera said in an interview on her front porch. "He was talking about going AWOL."
Her husband, Glen Rivera, sitting nearby, nodded.
"I sat down and explained to him, 'If you go AWOL, the stockade isn't that good,' " Mr. Rivera said. "Deep down inside, we knew he wouldn't."
Now, as they wait for his body to come home, Corporal Mateo's family - his mother, father, stepfather, in-laws, sisters and wife - say they are furious that he was killed in a war he had not wanted to fight.
His mother and stepfather, Luz and Miguel Rivera, tell a single story about his battlefield experience to anyone willing to listen.
One day early in the war, they said, they got a call from Corporal Mateo. Crying, he described how his Marine convoy, on the way to Baghdad, had been surrounded by Iraqi children when the convoy stopped and marines passed out candy.
Eventually, the marines shooed the children away, Corporal Mateo told his parents, but one 7-year-old boy would not leave. Corporal Mateo was ordered to point his rifle at the boy to scare him away, they said he told them.
"He said, 'I almost shot a 7-year-old tonight,' " Mr. Rivera said. "He was freaked out. It was the only thing that freaked him out."
Mr. Rivera said it was the only time Corporal Mateo had discussed the details of the war.
Now his family is telling the story of Corporal Mateo's life, again and again, to the neighbors and reporters and Marine officers who have been streaming into their white ranch home. A flag hangs in the front window, near an arrangement of his high school football trophies.
Whoever answers the door invites visitors in, no matter how much family members have been crying or how weary they are from the deluge of guests. "We've never felt as strongly as we feel now," said Glen Rivera, "because we've lost."
In the photos from Iraq, Corporal Mateo is stern. The desert gave him a goatee of dust. His date-brown eyes gazed coldly ahead as he held a rifle, leaned against a truck or held up his middle finger toward the camera.
But in his e-mail letters and phone calls home, his softer self emerged, his family says. He was hungry for gossip about his friends and family, and joked with his sisters, using their nicknames, Beedeebee and Big Head. He asked how his wife, Connie, was doing, and assured his family that he was O.K. and would be O.K..
"He was a marine," Glen Rivera said, "but when he was at home, he was our baby boy."
Corporal Mateo was 9 when his mother and father separated, and he quickly became protective of his mother, older sister and younger sister. He would square off against anyone who bullied his family, but he was a pushover around the people he loved. To make him smile, his aunt, Victoria Rodriguez, said, all you had to do was hug him and say his muscles were getting bigger.
In high school, Corporal Mateo played football until his grades plunged in his junior year and he had to quit the team. He did not graduate with his class, but got his diploma after summer school in August 2002, school administrators said.
Corporal Mateo's family said he knew he would languish in construction or catering jobs or as a security guard. Some of his classmates were committing crimes and going to jail. So in December 2002, Corporal Mateo enlisted in the Marines and left for boot camp." It was a way out," Ms. Rodriguez said.
"He sat down one time and he told us: 'I have to do this. I want to do something for myself,' " Miguel Rivera said.
It is a familiar path for students at Brentwood High, where 100 to 150 students a year take part in the three-credit, federally subsidized R.O.T.C. program, Mr. O'Brien said.
"It's not the type of community that can afford $36,000 tuition," Mr. O'Brien said. "They look to other modes of opportunity. It's a working-class community. You see that in every aspect of life around here."
Private Heighter, the first Long Island soldier to die fighting in Iraq and a 1999 Brentwood High graduate, saw the Army as his path toward college and security, his mother, Cathy, said. He died more than a year ago, but Ms. Heighter said she felt a wave of pain when she heard about Corporal Mateo's death, the third from Brentwood High.
"In one school," she said, "how does that happen?"