West Side soldier killed in combat
NEWMAN – A West Side soldier killed in action in Afghanistan last week was remembered by loved ones Monday as a dedicated family man who extended his military service in order to better provide for his wife and 13-month-old son.
Army Sgt. Jose Rodriguez, a 2008 graduate of Gustine High School who grew up in Newman and Gustine, was killed in a June 19 firefight while serving with a Stryker brigade combat team in Kandahar Province, family and military sources said.
Earlier this week, family members filled the Newman home of his mother, Margarita Rodriguez, where photos and candles adorned a mantle and living room wall…..snapshots of childhood years, his family and his military service.
Among the loved ones gathered were Sgt. Rodriguez’s wife of less than two years, Lupita Rodriguez, and the couple’s 13-month-old son Octavian.
“He was a great dad,” Lupita Rodriguez reflected. “Everything that he would do was to benefit Octavian and I. He would do anything to keep us happy. He was very loving and caring.”
Jose Rodriguez, 22, was serving a second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was killed.
He was supposed to be finished in the military last December, Lupita Rodriguez related, but he extended his duty to serve one more tour in Afghanistan before returning home with plans to pursue a career as a firefighter.
Sgt. Rodriguez stayed on for the additional deployment because he wanted to provide a better start for his family when he returned to civilian life, his wife explained.
“He wanted to deploy one more time,” she said. “He was thinking about us. He wanted us to have longer health benefits, and for us to be better off (when he returned home).”
In preparation for that time, Jose Rodriguez moved his family from housing near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., where he was stationed, to Modesto a few days before he deployed in late April.
He had been home briefly for Easter earlier that month, and several family members had made the trek to Washington this spring to spend time with him before he deployed.
Those visits provided some special moments and memories of precious time together the family will cherish, his loved ones said.
“When they went up there, Jose said his mom should stay the whole week. She didn’t, and now she regrets that,” Lupita Rodriguez shared.
Jose Rodriguez was born in San Jose, the middle of seven children, according to family members.
The family moved between Gustine and Newman when he was growing up, they recalled. His childhood activities included playing youth baseball. Much of his childhood was spent in Newman, relatives said, and he attended Orestimba for the first two years of high school. He finished his studies at Gustine High after the family moved back to Gustine. He played football at both schools, according to family members.
Ruben Rodriguez recalled his brother as having an infectious smile and sharp sense of humor.
“When you met him he would be the most serious person, but once he got to know you he loved to make people laugh,” he reflected.
“He always had to be doing something,” Ruben Rodriguez added. “He hated just sitting around.”
Jesus Zuno, also a 2008 Gustine High graduate, was a close friend since early childhood.
“He was my brother, since we were little kids. If you were having the worst day ever, Jose could make you smile,” he related.
Zuno, who is Octavian’s godparent, said they stayed in close touch.
“When he deployed, he would call me,” he related. “We would talk about life, about what plans we had when he got back.”
Learning of his friend’s death was “unreal,” Zuno said. “I just didn’t want to believe it. I kept thinking, ‘it’s not him.’ I didn’t want to process it.”
He also praised his friend’s heroism and dedication.
“He loved what he did. He enjoyed every second of it,” Zuno reflected. “He was a true hero.”
Jose Rodriguez had enlisted in the military shortly after high school graduation and shipped out to basic training that fall at Fort Benning, Ga., his brother said. His first deployment was in January 2009, according to published reports.
During that time, he and Lupita Rodriguez were carrying on a long-distance relationship.
The couple had met at a wedding when both were in high school. Lupita Rodriguez, who lived in Modesto, said that despite the challenges of a relationship from afar “I wanted to be the one he was writing letters to.”
Her mom would set those letters apart from the mail for her to find when she returned home from school. Jose Rodriguez also arranged from Afghanistan to have Valentine’s Day flowers and a glass memento depicting soul mates sent during his first deployment, Lupita Rodriguez said.
The couple exchanged wedding vows in September 2010, and she moved to Washington a few months later after finishing her studies. Their son was born 13 months ago.
“He loved to play with Octavian,” Lupita Rodriguez said. “He loved his son.”
She said she was initially surprised when he enlisted in the Army, but said “I liked it because he liked it.”
When she asked before his second deployment whether he was fearful, Lupita Rodriguez recalled, her husband assured her that he wasn’t…..and that he was very good at his job.
She said she last heard from him on June 13.
Six days later, he was killed in action during what an officer described to the family as a fierce firefight.
Even after her husband was mortally wounded, Lupita Rodriguez said, he continued to return fire.
“I know they tried everything to keep him alive, but it wasn’t possible,” she said.
Through their grief, his family expressed their pride in the fallen soldier.
“We are all very proud of Jose,” Lupita Rodriguez reflected. “We are all going to remember him. He left us with some great memories.”
Jose Rodriguez is the first soldier from the Newman-Gustine area to be killed in action since Cpl. T.J. Gonzales of Newman lost his life in Iraq in December 2008.
Family members said funeral arrangements are still pending.