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Friends, teachers 'heartbroken' over fallen Marine
It was a wonderful and wistful plan. Two friends, as close as brothers, would pack into an old car and turn the wheels toward the rising sun. Carlos Aragon and Hector Castillo would drive through the day and through the night, radio blaring as they sped across the plains.
Their destination: Indiana. Their goal: To find Aragon's long-estranged father.
Their only obstacles: A little bit of money and a little bit of time.
Aragon was hoping to make the trip after returning from his schooling as a light armored vehicle mechanic for the Marine Corps. But within weeks of the end of his training, the reservist's unit was called into the fight in Afghanistan.
Now the hoped-for journey is over.
Aragon, a 19-year-old Marine lance corporal from Orem, who once wrote that his heroes were "people that give their life for others without hesitation," was killed Monday in a roadside bomb explosion in the volatile southern Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Castillo learned of the news on Monday night. Two days later, he was still struggling to accept what had happened.
"People thought we were cousins -- and even though we weren't, we never corrected them," he said. "In fact, that doesn't even come close. We were brothers. I'm heartbroken."
Both young men had grown up without fathers. "And so we were always there for each other," Castillo said. "His mom called us 'salt and pepper,' and when I called on the phone, sometimes she thought I was her own son."
Aragon's mother on Wednesday was en route to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where her son's remains were lifted from the belly of a cargo plane in a flag-draped casket. The teenage Marine was one of four U.S. military members killed in Afghanistan on Monday and the ninth to die in the past two weeks in Helmand, which has been a focus of a recent allied offensive.
At Mountain View High School in Orem, where Aragon graduated in 2008, the United States flag was lowered to half-staff as teachers, administrators and fellow students tried to make sense of the loss.
Upon first hearing Aragon's name, Peter Glahn's face lit up.
"Carlos Aragon," the teacher-turned-assistant principal said, repeating the name given to him by the school's secretary. "Yes, I remember him. I had him in one of my classes."
"He was killed in Afghanistan," the secretary said.
In an instant, Glahn's smile fell. His face paled. His eyes welled.
"He was quiet and very respectful," Glahn remembered as he sat in his office a short time later. "And he seemed more mature than a lot of the kids, but he was kind to those around him."
Glahn said some people might have been intimidated by Aragon's appearance. "He had long hair -- he looked a little rough, but he was always a very gentle person," he said.
High school friend Jonny Shaw said that anyone who couldn't get past Aragon's looks was missing out on something special.
"He approached everyone with love and respect," Shaw said. "He was always quick to give me a hug when he'd see me. Some guys aren't brave enough to hug another guy in front of everyone, but he didn't care. He just wanted people to know that he loved them."
Castillo said he is sorry that he has missed the opportunity to embark on the Indiana quest with his friend. Now, he said, he simply wants to remember the memories they do share: Skateboarding through town, playing guitar into the night, and talking on the phone together from opposite sides of the globe.
When they last spoke, a few days before Aragon's death, they spent hours talking about "everything and nothing at all."
"Then he told me, 'OK, I'll call you next weekend,' and that was it -- we'll never talk again."
Even if there was much left undone, Castillo said, he feels fortunate that they left nothing unsaid.