Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Marine Lance Cpl. Rick J. Centanni

Remember Our Heroes

Marine Lance Cpl. Rick J. Centanni, 19, of Yorba Linda, Calif.

LCpl Centanni was assigned to the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 4thMarine Division, Marine Forces Reserve, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.; died March 24, 2010 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Also killed was Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Cottle.

One of the Marines killed was a 19-year-old kid who could barely wait to graduate from Esperanza High School to join the military and eventually become a cop – just like his father.

Marine Lance Cpl. Rick J. Centanni, who entered the military just weeks out of high school in 2008, was in a vehicle that was destroyed by an improvised explosive device, said his father, Jon Centanni, a sergeant in charge of investigations for the Santa Ana Police Department's gang unit.

"He wanted to serve his country," Centanni said. "I supported it, and I still do."

“He had the biggest heart. If you needed a hug, go find Rick,” Centanni’s high school friend Brittany Airey said. I “I want people to know that Rick died doing what he loved and he did it for everyone. He was willing to do what it took to give us our freedom.” Following a tradition she had with Centanni, Airey plans to “burn” chocolate chip cookies for his birthday next week. He would have been turning 20.
The death of Rick Centanni of Yorba Linda was announced Friday over the intercom at Esperanza High School in Anaheim. Class of 2008. Member of the football team. Marine lance corporal killed earlier this week by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

A secretary put Centanni's yearbook, the one in which his photo shows off his broad shoulders and wide smile, out at the front desk. Students, she knew, were sure to ask to see it.

This isn't the first time this has happened at Esperanza. Or the second. Centanni is the third Esperanza graduate killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2004.

"He came out for the team as a junior and I could see from the very first day that he had great enthusiasm for the game, for being part of a team. He loved every part of it," said Jim Pendleton, an English teacher and assistant football coach for the Esperanza Aztecs.

"It didn't surprise me when he went into the military because it was the ultimate expression of teamwork and camaraderie."

Centanni, he said, helped persuade three teammates to enlist with him in the military. One entered the Army. Two others joined him in the Marine Corps.

One of them, Kyle Martin, was in a vehicle behind Centanni's and saw the explosion.

Pendleton looked tired Friday. One of his sons recently finished his second tour in Iraq, safe and sound. But another of his former players was killed there in 2004 and the Aztecs wore a sticker on their helmets the following year: JB, for Army Pfc. Joel Brattain, 21, who left behind a newlywed, his high school sweetheart. Centanni wore a helmet with that sticker.

"With the volunteer military, I don't think the war has the same effect on young people today -- until something like this happens," Pendleton said.

Over in the boys' locker room, a bunch of sophomores were getting ready for their physical education class. "It was somber," Alex Hizon, 16, said of the mood in class when Centanni's death was announced. "People didn't even have to tell us to be quiet. It hit home. My brother's at the Naval Academy."

"My cousin's going into the Marines," added Sean Bennett, 16. "I think about that."

Nearby, another youth, bigger than the others, said he intended to join the Marines too.

"I don't have any other opportunities," he said.

Did Centanni's death make him rethink those plans?

"You can die driving home from school. You can die from a heart attack from all the McDonald's you eat," he said. "It's just as easy dying here as it is there."

"But it's still a tragedy. It's a loss of life," his friend, another 16-year-old, countered. "But I understand where you're coming from."

Over in the weight room, athletic equipment manager Ron Thompson said Centanni was an exemplary young man.

"He was one of my favorites," said Thompson, who said Centanni's No. 30 jersey won't be worn next year. "Good kid. One of those kids who said 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir.' Very courteous."

Not every kid is, he said. Just the other day, for instance, there was a group of track athletes warming up for a meet. They stopped running when the national anthem began at the baseball game at an adjoining field. But they started running again before it ended.

"I lectured them for a good 10 minutes," Thompson said. "I told them, 'Do you know you have friends over there who are fighting so you can be on the track team? How about showing a little respect?' "

Outside on the school quad, there were posters for a lunchtime concert held earlier this week by a Temecula-based band named War Stories.

C.J. Abraham, a 17-year-old junior, sat where the band had played and talked about whether Centanni's death would play a role in his still-forming thoughts about trying to get into West Point or the Air Force Academy.

"I haven't decided. To go to school and work that hard and then to get killed after all that effort . . .," he said. "I'm in the school band and there's two girls in the color guard and both of their brothers joined (the military) because of this guy. It hit them pretty hard."

Behind him on the quad, high school seniors picked up pre-ordered boxes of graduation announcements -- printed proof that they are about to become adults.


Centanni and Cottle enjoyed a personal friendship despite the big difference in their ages, friends say. They became close friends after their deployment, with the older Marine taking the younger under his wing, they said.

Both Marines were stationed with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, in southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The men were deployed in November on a mission to stop Taliban soldiers and supplies coming from Pakistan, according to published reports about the battalion.

Centanni was a light-armored vehicle driver. He played football for Esperanza in 2007. The mood at Esperanza High School on Thursday was somber as word spread that one of its own had lost his life in battle.

Office employees fielded several calls from alumni Thursday morning who wanted to know if the rumors about Rick Centanni were true. The school later posted an "in memoriam" note on its Web site in his honor.

"There is a motto at this school that says, 'Once an Aztec, always an Aztec.' And it's a loss being felt by the entire Esperanza family right now," Assistant Principal Harry Dolen said.

Centanni's football coach, Bill Pendleton, got emotional as he recalled Centanni, who wore No. 30 and played linebacker his junior and senior years on the Esperanza varsity football team that won league titles both years.

"He was an average athlete, but he played with so much joy and enthusiasm," Pendleton said. "He was a great teammate and it's no surprise at all to me that he chose to join the one other thing with as much camaraderie – the U.S. military."

Pendleton said a photo of Centanni will be added to a "Hall of Fame" in the school's weight room so players can honor him for years to come. And they also will petition the school district to add a bronze plaque on a campus wall so all students can honor him.

"We all need to remember and appreciate what he did for all of us," Pendleton said, choking back tears. "He will be greatly missed by all of us."

Centanni's mother and half-brothers and sisters live in Arizona. The young Marine called his father weekly. They last spoke Monday.

"He sounded totally up," Jon Centanni said. "He loved what he was doing, and loved the guys he was with over there. He was a great kid, a great son. It's a terrible loss, and he will be missed." Centanni would have turned 20 next month.

They hope to have a plaque for him installed at the Yorba Linda Veterans Memorial. Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said there likely would be a full departmental turnout for a memorial for Centanni. "When something like this happens, everybody hurts," Walters said.

The commander of the fallen Marines' battalion, Lt. Col. Michael S. Martin, wrote in a letter to family members when it deployed in November that it would likely be in Afghanistan for around seven months.

"This will be a challenging period for all of us," Martin wrote in the letter, which was posted on the battalion's Web site. "Because of the unique skill sets of (the battalion), our location will be very austere and I suspect our operational tempo to be high... meaning we'll be busy."

Jon Centanni said his son's death hasn't made him bitter about the military. "Just say prayers and keep supporting the troops," he said. "Don't get a bad attitude because this happened. It's a part of war."

Marine Lance Cpl. Rick J. Centanni was killed in action on 3/24/10.

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