Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas’ bedroom is nothing short of a shrine to the Marine whose death in an Iraqi roadside explosion preceded a firefight that now is the focus of a criminal investigation.
His dress blue uniform, complete with his ceremonial Marine Corps sword, hangs in a cherry wood display case. His medals, including the Purple Heart awarded after his death, sit below his jacket.
On one wall is a Marine Comfort Quilt, a blanket sewn by strangers who heard of the 20-year-old’s November death in Haditha, Iraq. Opposite that is a tribute banner signed by the Marines he fought with — from the unit now the target of a high-profile probe into the killings of more than 20 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children, after Terrazas was killed.
Exactly what happened that day remains unclear. Miguel Terrazas’ father, Martin, said the Marines his son fought with told him that after the car bomb exploded the Marines took a defensive position around his son’s battered vehicle. Insurgents immediately started shooting from nearby buildings, and the insurgents were using women and children as human shields, Martin said he was told.
The Marines shot back because “it was going to be them or” the insurgents, Martin said of what his son’s fellow Marines briefly described to him.
“It’s very hard for me, I don’t even listen to the news,” Terrazas said of reports of the mass killings.
‘Those Marines just did their job’
Marine officials initially gave the same story, that 15 civilians were killed Nov. 19 in the explosion and a subsequent firefight that also killed eight insurgents. Several months later Time magazine and then Arab television stations obtained a videotape of the scene, showing the bodies of women and children. The video, Iraqis’ accounts of the day and other emerging details sparked a criminal investigation.
Terrazas said he has met with many from his son’s unit who told him they did only what was necessary to survive. He wouldn’t say when he spoke with them.
“Those Marines just did their job,” he said. “Some of these kids were saying, ‘We have to live with it.’”
Former Marine Luis Terrazas, Miguel’s uncle, said Marines are trained to stay cool under pressure.
“Jarheads don’t just go out and kill because they get frustrated,” Luis Terrazas said. “Their training is exquisite. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Destined to serve
Miguel Terrazas, a third-generation Marine, was destined to follow two uncles and a great uncle into the Corps. He left for boot camp right after high school graduation.
But he also looked forward to leaving the military and pursuing a career in law enforcement. College was in the plan, too, said his grandfather, Jorge Terrazas, an Army veteran who encouraged all of his children and grandchildren to join the military.
Miguel Terrazas also took his turn working at the family business, an El Paso taco shop. Family always came first, and relatives said his older brother, Martin Jr., was his best friend.
When he joined the Marines, he took his gregarious personality and wily ways with him. He earned the nickname “T.J.” for his love of partying in Tijuana, Mexico, while stationed in Camp Pendleton in California.
Miguel was a talented football player who wasn’t always perfect, his father recalled with a smile. Still, “He didn’t like anyone to worry,” Martin Terrazas said.
Since that day in Haditha, his family has done nothing but worry.
Terrazas said the Marines from his son’s unit didn’t give him many details of the attack but assured him that Miguel didn’t suffer.
“They just said it wasn’t a pretty sight,” he said.
‘Let him lie in peace’
Now the family is reminded daily, in the barrage of news accounts of the killings and the investigations, of how Miguel died.
“Why don’t they leave my grandson (alone)? Let him lie in peace,” Jorge Terrazas said.
Making things worse, the family must now worry about another service member in combat.
Army Sgt. Thomas Hance, the husband of Miguel’s aunt Elizabeth Hance-Terrazas, is serving his second tour in Iraq. Elizabeth Hance-Terrazas said she worries about her husband every day but is comforted by the thought that he has a guardian angel.
“I just think of my nephew and think that he is watching us,” she said.
Miguel Terrazas was in his second tour in Iraq when he was killed. His family says he knew how dangerous his duty was, having survived an ambush during his first tour.
When he came home before his second deployment, the young Marine told his family not to worry.
“He said, ‘No matter what ... don’t worry,’” Luis Terrazas said, fighting back tears.