Inside a chapel at Naval Base Ventura County, nearly 300 Seabees stood at attention as taps played for Petty Officer Oscar Avila-Mendoza.
Most wearing camouflage uniforms, they joined Avila-Mendoza’s relatives at the Port Hueneme chapel Wednesday afternoon to honor the memory of the 23-year-old Seabee, who was killed early Friday when a wrong-way driver plowed into his car in Malibu as he returned from picking up a fellow Seabee at Los Angeles International Airport. Avila-Mendoza and his wife were expecting their first child this month, and he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Some cried during the memorial ceremony while Avila-Mendoza’s sister, two friends and his battalion commander eulogized him. They recalled him as an excellent Seabee who was loved by many and cared deeply for family and friends.
“He was an amazing man, amazing friend, amazing Seabee,” Petty Officer Chris Wadhwani said directly to his friend’s wife, Ana Avila. “I know he would have been a great father,” he added.
Avila-Mendoza was born in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, and moved with his parents and younger siblings to the neighboring city of El Paso, Texas, when he was 9.
The oldest of four siblings, he enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and began his service when he graduated from Chapin High School in El Paso, said Ana Avila, 21.
Avila-Mendoza was a welder and steelworker on Navy construction projects. He lived in Northridge with his wife.
If he had survived to deploy with his unit, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40, it would have been Avila-Mendoza’s fifth tour overseas: He previously served in Guam, Thailand, Korea and Kuwait, his wife said.
Avila-Mendoza and his wife met through mutual friends in 2007 and married in August 2009.
Preparing for the coming deployment was particularly tough for the petty officer because he and his wife were expecting their first child, a baby boy, on July 31, she said. They had already picked out his name — Oscar Jr.
Now Avila is struggling to cope with her husband’s loss and thinking about how she’ll show his pictures to their son while telling him how great his father was, she said in a telephone interview.
“I don’t know why he had to leave so young. I never expected to be a single parent,” she said.
Avila-Mendoza was killed shortly before 1 a.m. Friday when a wrong-way driver slammed into his car on Pacific Coast Highway near Zuma View Place in Malibu. The wrong-way driver was also killed in the crash.
The Seabee’s passenger, fellow Seabee Petty Officer Jesus Saenz, 24, was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center, where he was listed in stable condition.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials said they were investigating whether the wrong-way driver was under the influence, whether he crashed intentionally, and, if so, why. Avila-Mendoza was returning from picking up Saenz, a Navy electrician, when he was killed.
Saenz was returning from taking his pregnant wife to their home town of Las Cruces, N. M., where she was going to stay with relatives during his deployment to Afghanistan, Ana Avila said. He was scheduled to arrive at LAX at 8:45 p.m., but his flight was delayed twice, which is why the Seabees were on the road so late, she said.
Avila-Mendoza and Saenz served in the same battalion at Port Hueneme. They had been best friends since they met in boot camp in 2005, Avila said.
Avila-Mendoza was well-liked in his battalion, and his care for others was a re-occurring theme in his eulogies along with the shock of his sudden death.
“I will forever be grateful to have known Oscar,” said Petty Officer Victor Chavez, a close friend. “He taught me that life is short and the most important part of life is the people in it.”
Avila-Mendoza’s sister, Lily Avila-Mendoza, sobbed as she prepared to speak.
She spoke of her brother’s strength, calling him her best friend, her protector and her hero.
His battalion leader, Cmdr. Glenn Hubbard, recalled a trip to Korea when Avila-Mendoza impressed him for both his good work and character.
While visiting an area where Avila-Mendoza was stationed, Hubbard searched him out for a tour on the advice of officers who complimented his work.
When the commander praised Avila-Mendoza, the young man consistently gave credit to the people who helped him rather than take it for himself, and at the end of the tour, he politely excused himself to continue with his work. Impressed by the young man’s demeanor even more than his good work, Hubbard gave Avila-Mendoza a “command coin,” a mark of special recognition, he recalled.
Grieving for Avila-Mendoza as they prepared to leave for Afghanistan seems to have made the battalion’s members more like a family, Chaplain Troy Avery said after the service.
“If anything, it has pulled us together as a battalion even tighter,” Avery said.