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Logan • The son of Mexican immigrants, Utah's 61st military fatality in the war on terror was always spoiling for a fight.
But Marine Norberto Mendez Hernandez, 22, was not angry, just a spunky, fit young man who loved the martial arts and the physicality of a good living-room wrestling match, his friends said Tuesday.
The 2007 Logan High School graduate died Sunday in Helmand Province, the region of Afghanistan where the greatest number of coalition forces have been lost.
The Department of Defense announced late Monday evening that Hernandez died in combat. His family was told he died of a gunshot wound to the back of his head, suffered while on patrol in the Sangin district.
The infantryman was assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division based in Camp Pendleton, Calif. He leaves behind a wife, Lorena, 2-year-old son Anthony and 8-month-old daughter Audrey at Camp Pendleton, as well as his parents, Maria Mendez Hernandez and Norberto Mendez and four siblings in Logan.
He was the eighth Marine from his battalion to die in Afghanistan since they arrived this spring, and the 11th American and second Utahn to die this month. Preston J. Suter, a 22-year-old Army police officer from Sandy, died July 5 in Paktia Province when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.
His parents and 17-year-old brother, Thomas, returned early Wednesday morning from Dover, Md., where they and his wife met the jet returning Mendez Hernandez's remains.
The slain Marine's parents talked Wednesday of his lifelong ambition to join the military, which perhaps began with their gift of a wind-up toy soldier when he was still crawling.
They also spoke of their long effort to discourage him. "I would tell him there are other ways to help your country," his mother said through an interpreter, her son's friend, Carlos Rosales.
His father even threatened, at one point, to join the military if the son did. So Mendez Hernandez put his dad in a headlock to prove he wasn't fit enough.
Mendez Hernandez often read the Bible, and believed God wanted him to serve his country, his parents said. "He would say, 'I'm not happy with just my family being happy. There are kids suffering in other countries and I want to help,'" his mother said.
On Tuesday, friends placed bouquets of red, white and blue flowers and balloons on a flag-draped table. Pictures of Mendez Hernandez in his Marine uniform were propped in the grass, a U.S. flag was posted and candles were lit in the late afternoon shade.
"He's too young," said Chris Barrera, one of a half-dozen friends who gathered for the vigil.
Krystal Rosales, Carlos' wife, said the Marine and his wife had intended to return to Logan this fall to baptize their daughter at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and had asked the Rosaleses to be the godparents. "He'll be here in spirit," she said through tears.
His friends used a lot of adjectives to described the young Marine: stubborn, strong-willed, attention-loving, ripped.
But Victor Estrada said his memory keeps going back to that day at the start of sixth grade when they first laid eyes on each other.
Neither 12-year-old could find his classroom, and the two passed in the hall. Estrada was laughing as he passed Mendez Hernandez, who, fresh from Anaheim, Calif., took it as an insult.
Estrada told Mendez Hernandez he looked like Frankenstein. Mendez Hernandez retorted that Estrada looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. The principal broke up the fight before either landed a punch. Partners on a science project that year, the two became friends.
In the years since, they and a large group of comrades would swim at Hyrum Reservoir, boat on Bear Lake, play paint ball in Logan Canyon, wrestle and play video games such as "Modern Warfare" and "Black Ops."
"He was a fighter in every way," said Estrada.
As a boy, Mendez Hernandez would show his friends Army brochures, but his ambition shifted to the Marines when he learned of the Marine reputation for toughness.
"He had the perfect attitude for it," said Estrada. "He had a lot of courage for small guy."
Brandt Anderson, who met Mendez Hernandez at Gossner Foods, where the two men worked, said once he enlisted, Mendez Hernandez was all in. He had Marine stickers on the windows and bumper of his truck. He worked out with his recruiter. He even had a list of military lingo posted by his work station so he could bone up, Anderson said.
"He was just really strong-willed," Anderson said. "Once he decided something, whether you liked it or not, that was what he was going to do."
Darin Allen, Hernandez's supervisor at Gossner Foods for two years, said earlier Tuesday that Mendez Hernandez "had that kind of personality that radiated friendliness."
Hernandez was a filler operator, which meant he worked at the beginning of the production line that folds the paper cartons that are then filled with shelf-stable milk. Gossner supplies the military, and the Marine was photographed taking a gulp from one of his former employer's cartons.
"He got a big kick out of that," Allen said.
As an employee, Hernandez was hard-working, Allen said. "If he ever made a mistake, he was the first one to admit it. He would ask how to improve."
"He had this commitment that he wanted to do something. He wanted to be a Marine because they're the best," said Allen. "He wanted to be part of something bigger."