Pvt. Robbie Mariano

Pvt. Robbie Mariano was buried in his hometown of Stockton, Calif., on Jan. 20. He died with five other soldiers when their Humvee hit an improvised explosive device outside of Najaf. Everyone who was close to the guitar-playing soldier believed that he was one who would come home from Iraq alive. Shirley Skeel reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Earlier this month, Private Robbie Mariano was buried in his hometown of Stockton, California. He was on patrol near Najaf in Iraq when an improvised explosive device struck his convoy. Shirley Skeel reports.

SHIRLEY SKEEL reporting:

Robbie Mariano was fearless, everyone says. Funny, fearless, and once he set his mind on achieving something, he never stopped.

RYAN CASPERSON (Friend): He was crazy. He was just full of life, man. He was just a spark plug. He was a little guy, but he was tough. His personality made him big and aggressive.

SKEEL: Ryan Casperson grew up with Robbie in the Central Valley town, skating and arm wrestling in their free hours after school. Mariano loved to play guitar, to sing, and to make people laugh. He was also crazy about sport. His little league baseball coach Doug Bennett remembers one game.

Mr. DOUG BENNETT (Friend): Robbie got the winning hit. Slapped one to right field, the ball was way over his head, he shouldn't have been able to touch it, but he was there to hit it no matter what. And he wasn't gonna take a walk if he could hit the ball.

SKEEL: In 2004, Mariano joined the army with plans to use the GI Bill to help pay for college later. He thought he might study law enforcement and follow in the footsteps of his father, a Stockton police sergeant. His younger brother Bobby was not surprised when Robbie enlisted.

Mr. BOBBY MARIANO (Brother): When we were little, we used to, you know, dress up in camouflage and run around the yard and play games, so I would assume, you know, it started right there. He loved the army, it was his second family.

SKEEL: Robbie trained for a year at Fort Hood, Texas. Just before leaving for Iraq in September last year, he came home. His old friend Ryan Casperson asked him if he was afraid to die.

Mr. CASPERSON: He said that he knew what could happen and that he planned to do that for the fight, for the reason, for his cause.

SKEEL: In Iraq, Mariano was handpicked to guard his commanding officer because of his skill as a marksman. In early January, Mariano phoned his father and said he was just fine. Ten hours later two soldiers knocked on Bob Mariano's door.

Mr. BOB MARIANO (Father): First they told me to sit down and once they told me to sit down, I understood what they were gonna tell me.

SKEEL: Private Robbie Mariano was killed with four others when the Humvee he was in hit a roadside bomb outside the city of Najaf. His family is devastated, but Bob Mariano says he's not angry.

Mr. MARIANO: I stood behind him 100 percent and even though my son was killed, the army was good for my son and I'm proud of what he accomplished.

(Soundbite of horn playing Taps)

SKEEL: More than 600 people attended Robbie's funeral. After the gun salute, his mother cried openly on the coffin. A police officer wiped his eyes as Bobby played his brother's favorite CD by the band Green Day.

(Soundbite of Green Day)

SKEEL: Robbie Mariano was 21. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

For NPR News I'm Shirley Skeel.

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