When Robert Mendoza graduated from high school at 17, he offered his mom a choice.
She could give her legal consent for him to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps as a minor. Or, when he turned 18, he would move from Texas to San Diego and enlist without her blessing.
Despite Yolanda’s fears, she signed the papers, helping her son fulfill a dream he’d had since middle school. Mendoza was a selfless person, his family said, someone who constantly insisted that he was willing to put his life on the line for his country.
He survived the battlefields, but not COVID-19. Mendoza was 43 when he died April 20 from complications of the virus.
Mendoza served in the military for nearly 13 years — eight in active duty and nearly five in the reserves. His deployments included stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually earning a rank of staff sergeant.
Mendoza suffered a serious injury while he was stationed in Japan, forcing doctors to insert a titanium rod in his leg. In order to remain in the Marines, he had to perform a series of tests to demonstrate that he could handle the rigors of military life, including running a mile in a set period of time. He trained and barely made the cut. His mother said it underscored how determined he was to succeed.
“He did what he could to live his life to the fullest,” she said.
Mendoza loved to sew and repair things. So after returning to California, he opened a tactical gear store in Oceanside for military personnel and police officers. He also had a son, Christian. Working on his own time allowed him to be active in his son’s life.
Yolanda said it’s unclear how her son contracted the coronavirus, though she believes it may have been from a customer or even an encounter during a delivery. His first symptoms, which struck Easter weekend, were headaches. Then he began losing his sense of taste and smell.
He tested positive for the virus and was admitted to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside. Within days, he was transferred to intensive care and placed on a ventilator. A week later, he died.
Mass-gathering restrictions forced the family to have a small funeral, where they viewed the gravesite from a distance. There were no military honors, such as a 21-gun salute –because of these restrictions.
“My son served in three wars and he had his life cut short by this virus,” Yolanda said. “He deserved so much. Robert was loved by so many people. He was a good guy, he loved his country and was willing to die for it.”
Mendoza is survived by his 9-year-old son, Christian; his parents, Yolanda and Robert; and a sister, Patricia.