Relatives of Marine killed in Iraq gather in California for service

The Contreras family is making a trip today that they never wanted to make.

Flying in from different parts of Oregon, Washington and California, family members will meet at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Southern California to attend a military memorial service for Capt. Aaron J. Contreras, killed this week in the line of duty.

Contreras, 31, a Marine helicopter pilot raised in Sherwood, was one of three Marines killed Sunday in a UH-1N Huey helicopter crash just after sunset in southern Iraq. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

A devout Catholic and father of three, Contreras became the third person killed in the war who grew up in the Portland area. Nineteen-year-old U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Tobler of Northeast Portland died March 22 in a Humvee accident in southern Iraq. Forty-year-old U.S. Air Force Maj. Gregg Stone, a Benson High graduate, died March 25 of injuries suffered two days earlier in a grenade attack in Kuwait.

Military officials said Contreras' helicopter crashed at a supply and refueling point and that no hostile fire was involved.

The service in California today also will honor the two others killed in the crash.

Contreras' body will be sent to Oregon for another service, to be held at St. Francis Catholic Church in Sherwood. The date has not been decided.

Contreras' parents, well-known and respected in the community since they moved there in 1979, are devastated by the loss.

'Just like everyone says, my son was wonderful,' said his mother, Rosary. 'There's times we'll cry, but we know where he is. We'll be missing him, but we know he's with the Lord and is much happier than we are here.'

The Rev. Tom McCarthy, the family pastor, said the community also is shaken by the death. Just after they heard the news, several members of the church gathered to pray with Edward and Rosary Contreras at Monday morning Mass.

Aaron Contreras was the second youngest of five boys. The brothers Ñ Tom, David, Eddie, Derrick and Aaron Ñ spent their time playing basketball with friends on the family's 10-acre property to stay out of trouble, his mother said.

The boys also excelled in sports at school. 'It was an awesome family,' said John Kelly, principal of Sherwood High School when the Contreras boys went through the system. 'They were first-class, wonderful representatives of the Sherwood community.'

The boys were 'all solid citizens, good students, terrific athletes,' he said. 'Aaron was just like all his other brothers. É It's going to be a huge loss.'

Aaron Contreras was the only one of the boys to join the military. It wasn't always his intention.

After graduating from Sherwood High School in 1990, he dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot and studied at prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

But he didn't know he'd find love so soon. When he was still in high school, while working at a pizza parlor, he met his future wife, Janelle Thorn, of Tigard. They married and had a child. Contreras graduated from Embry-Riddle, then chose to join the military rather than continue his pilot studies.

The couple, who were married 12 years, had two more children. The family lives in Temecula, Calif., near Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base 60 miles north of San Diego.

Contreras could have flown for the U.S. Air Force, his mother said, but he elected to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a Marine infantryman in the Vietnam War.

Rosary Contreras said of her husband: 'Being a Vietnam veteran, there's memories and stuff, so he can kind of feel a little more than the rest of us what (Aaron) must've gone through. Things are a little different over there (in Iraq), of course. The sandstorms and jungles are a little different, but the concept of war is the same.'

Aaron Contreras joined the service in 1997 and spent time abroad last year on an aircraft carrier. In January, he found out he would be deployed to the Persian Gulf. When he called home to tell his parents, 'he said he wasn't scared,' his mother said. 'He trusted the war, whatever happened happened, and that was it. He was very close to God. A wonderful young man.'

They received several short e-mails from him since then, including one just last week in which he thanked his mother for sending a care package of homemade cookies, Rice Krispie treats, Skittles and Oreos.

'I told him we were praying for him and his family to have peace during the separation,' his mother said. 'And he said, 'Thank you, Mom. God bless.' '

Linda Hardman of the Sherwood Gazette contributed to this story.

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