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IN MEMORIAM

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LCpl. Travis Woods
(reprinted from Leatherneck.com, October 14, 2007)

Marine Cpl. Travis Woods, 21, Redding; killed by anti-tank mine in Afghanistan

Marine Cpl. Travis Woods, 21, Redding; killed by anti-tank mine in Afghanistan
By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 14, 2007

As a child, Travis Woods built his own hills. When winter brought rain to his neighborhood near Redding, at the northern tip of California’s Central Valley, he would shape the sodden soil into little buttes and bluffs that would serve as jumps for his BMX bike. And when summer came and the sun baked the hills solid, he and his bike would soar.

“We always knew where to find him because he and his friend would be building jumps,” recalled his mother, Stacey. “I always knew they weren’t getting in any trouble because all they wanted to do was jump.”

It could get a little crazy. Once, his mother said, he did a back flip on his bike into a lake — a moment captured in a photograph. Stunts like that were at his core. He loved extreme sports; the more extreme, the better. His latest passion was surfing.

That sense of adventure and physical courage would later become assets on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Woods served with valor as a Marine.

After a tour in Iraq, he became one of the first members of the Marine Corps’ new Special Operations Command, which was formed to take on dangerous and highly sensitive assignments.

On Sept. 9, while on a combat mission in the northern region of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Cpl. Travis M. Woods became the first member of the Special Operations Command to die in the line of duty. He was 21. Woods was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.

“If you knew him, you were definitely fortunate,” said Nate Hahn, who joined the Marines with Woods when they were seniors at Foothill High School in Palo Cedro, just east of Redding. “I talked to one of his sergeants recently, and he said if he had 100 of Travis, he’d be set.”

He’d also have his hands full, because Woods was something of a prankster. At Woods’ funeral, Hahn got laughs by telling about the time that Woods spiked a high school buddy’s lunch with laxatives. Hahn said he told that story “just because it was the cleanest one I could think of.”

Woods’ mother said he joined the Marines out of a sense of patriotism stirred by the Sept. 11 attacks. In the service, he distinguished himself through displays of courage and leadership, according to Hahn and others. This summer, while in Afghanistan, he was credited with saving the lives of several fellow Marines when their vehicle was hit by a recoilless rifle round during a combat patrol.

Braving small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, and “in complete disregard for his personal safety,” Woods “quickly applied battlefield trauma aid to his fellow Marines,” according to a citation accompanying the Navy Medal of Commendation, which he received for his actions.

Details about his death are sketchy, but, according to information given to his family and to Hahn, Woods was on a reconnaissance patrol when his Humvee hit an anti-tank mine. Woods absorbed the brunt of the blast and was the only one in the vehicle who died.

“He definitely took it for everyone else,” said Hahn, who is on assignment at Camp Pendleton after a deployment in Iraq.

More than 300 people attended Woods’ funeral in Mount Shasta, according to the Redding Record Searchlight. Among those who spoke was Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commanding general of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Hejlik said that Woods’ name would be the first from the new command to be inscribed on a special operations memorial in Florida.

“I guess I’m supposed to be really proud of that,” his mother said later in an interview, her tone sardonic.

Two memorials clearly meant more to her. A woman she had never met sent her, unsolicited, a quilt made in tribute to Woods. And someone anonymously sent her a blanket with his photo transferred onto it. “Unbelievable,” she said of the acts of kindness.

The mission on which Woods died was supposed to have been his last before returning home, said his grandfather, Dan Aquila. “He was ready to come home,” Aquila said. The last time he spoke to his grandson by phone, he said, “I could tell in his voice that he was pretty scared.”

Aquila said his grandson seemed to have been shaken by his service in Iraq, telling family members that the majority of Iraqis “don’t want us there.”

For security reasons, Aquila said, Woods had not talked or written about the situation in Afghanistan.

Stacey Woods said her son was ready to get out of the military, and was talking to her about careers that would offer a decent living and plenty of time for sports. “I think he was very proud of what he did, and he never so much as regretted it, but he knew he wasn’t going to stay in,” she said.

Since he showed an aptitude for first aid in the Marines, she urged him to consider a medical career. In the meantime, he had a few more months of Marine duty, and knew how he wanted to spend it. “He was going to get back to Pendleton,” his mother said, “and probably surf, surf, surf, surf.”

mitchell.landsberg @latimes.com