PFC Stephen Anthony Castellano

1 February 1984 - 28 January 2005 

Army Pfc. Stephen Anthony Castellano was always a fighter, from his birth until the day he died.

And he was always on the side of the good fight, his family said in a joint statement Wednesday, whether it was something as simple as a personal disagreement, or the defense of an entire nation.

"Stephen gave his life protecting the most basic rights of a formerly oppressed people; the right to live in freedom and their right to express that freedom by exercising the right to participate in the formation of the government that will ultimately rule over them."

"Men and women in a country that didn't recognize women as anything more than property as recently as two years ago will be involved in the creation of a fledgling democracy. They will struggle. They will stumble and fall. It will not be perfect, but it will be free. Stephen knew this and sacrificed his freedom for their freedom. Steve paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom here in the United States and give liberty a chance to grow throughout the world."

Such are the words of Castellano's family, who banded together to write a tribute to their son, brother, nephew and hometown hero who was killed in Iraq on Friday.

Details released by the Pentagon regarding his death were sketchy, and government officials Tuesday would say only that the infantryman was killed in a non-combat-related incident.

His family, however, was told that Stephen, assigned to C Company of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and another soldier were in a sniper position when they were discovered. A firefight broke out, and Stephen was shot in the head. He was pronounced dead at a military hospital.

Tuesday would have been the young soldier's 21st birthday. Instead of celebrating her eldest child's milestone day, however, Susan Moncure spent Feb. 1 preparing to bury her boy.

She hopes that her son's body will be returned home in time for a funeral service Friday. As of Wednesday, she was still awaiting news from the Army.

Services will be held at Faith Presbyterian Church, 500 E. San Antonio Drive, in Long Beach, and the burial will follow at nearby All Souls Cemetery, 4400 Cherry Ave. But it is not yet clear what time and what day, she said.

Moncure was not able to speak to her son for several weeks before he was killed, she said Wednesday. Although she clearly remembers their last three conversations, and she said the family was able to spend two weeks with Stephen over the Thanksgiving holiday when he was on leave.

"It was such a happy time," she recalled Wednesday, her voice revealing her grief and exhaustion. "I'm trying to think of the happy times."

His unit, the 1-14 "Golden Dragons," were set to leave Iraq in a few weeks after 12 months crisscrossing the country, fighting Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Najaf in April, and serving in Kirkuk, Samarra and Mosul, said Army Sgt. T. Washington, of Schofield Barracks, on Wednesday.

The battalion was so traveled that soldiers dubbed their deployment the Golden Dragons Iraq Tour 2004. Despite the combat, Schofield Barracks officials said 1-14 had not lost a soldier until now. Battalion representatives declined to comment about Stephen's death Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered flags at the state Capitol flown at half-staff.

"Pfc. Castellano served his country with honor," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Maria and I send our heartfelt sympathies and gratitude to Stephen's family and friends. His selfless service to our country will be remembered and our prayers are with his loved ones at this time."

Stephen joined the Army on Feb. 11, 2003, fresh from his high school graduation. His enlistment followed a proud family tradition of military service; his mother had been in the Navy and his father was a Marine.

Stephen is the fourth member of the armed forces from Long Beach killed since the start of the war, and his death brought the number of U.S. military fatalities to 1,434 Tuesday. Since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, at least 1,096 have died as a result of hostile action, the Defense Department stated.

Relatives said Wednesday that Stephen had done more in his 20 short years than most people accomplish in full lifetimes. He was forever putting others before himself, and he was always ready for the call of duty, they said.

He is survived by his grandmother, Cecelia Moncure; his mother, Susan Moncure; his father, Paul Castellano; his brother, Timothy Castellano and a host of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

"Our family, and our friends, have been so supportive, so wonderful," Susan said. "If it weren't for them, I don't know how I would manage."

By Tracy Manzer Staff writer from