Boro family mourns loss of corporal

By Dustin Brown

A 21-year-old Marine from Maspeth who had served his country for the past four years has died in the war with Iraq. He is the borough's first known casualty in the conflict.

The family of Cpl. Robert Marcus Rodriguez, who still live in Maspeth, received a letter and package from him filled with gifts from Kuwait only days ago. But over the weekend they heard a knock on the door and were told he was missing, and Monday they learned he was dead, killed along with three others when their tank plunged off a bridge into the Euphrates River.

“It must be a terrible, terrible feeling,” said neighbor Elaine Umowski. “My heart goes out to them and to every other parent out there who's lost someone.”

Rodriguez was the city's second casualty from the war in Iraq.

Borough President Helen Marshall called Rodriguez a patriot and an American hero who died serving his country.

“He now joins the ranks of our honored dead and like so many of our veterans, he has left us a debt we can never repay,” said Marshall. “Our sympathy and prayers are with his family, friends and fellow Marines.”

The youngest of five children, Rodriguez enlisted in the Marines at age 17, and he was stationed in California with the 1st Marine Division when he was shipped out to the Persian Gulf.

But Rodriguez's parents and sister still live in the Maspeth home where he grew up, where they lowered the flag to half-staff and tied black ribbons around the yellow ones already there once hope descended to grief.

His sister, Hyda Hernandez-Lopez, told the Associated Press that her youngest brother was a hero to his family.

“He loved the Marines. That's all he lived and breathed – the Marines,” she said Tuesday. “We were all so very proud of him. He was our hero.”

Hernandez-Lopez, a retired NYPD officer, said her brother had planned to become a New York City cop.

Rodriguez's patriotic pride was something he wore all the time – literally. His body bore tattoos depicting the lifting of the flag at Iwo Jima and firefighters raising a flag at Ground Zero, while a third featured the Puerto Rican flag.

But inscribed on his chest was a picture of the amaryllis, a tribute to his mother, who shares the flower's name.

With 17 nieces and nephews who loved playing with their uncle, Rodriguez left behind a small army of his own relatives who are struggling to cope with his loss.

But at least he died doing what he loved, his sister said. “He was not afraid of dying for his country.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

More from Around New York