Jose Antonio Gutierrez

In the most common photograph that one sees of Jose Antonio Gutierrez nowadays, he is wearing his formal US Marine uniform.

After much discussion, we decided instead to use this photograph of a much-younger Jose Antonio Gutierrez’, captured here in his mid-teens, to tell his story since, above all else, Jose Antonio was a person; young, idealistic, and full of hope and dreams.

Jose Antonio Gutierrez was a small boy orphaned into the streets of Guatemala City when he was 8 years old. He was sent to live in a war orphanage run by Patrick Atkinson in Ciudad Vieja, Sacatepequez, Guatemala. Over the next 14 years, “Tono” was raised and educated by Patrick Atkinson in this orphanage, then in foster homes and subsequently in Atkinson’s own home.

Through high school, Jose Antonio was educated in local schools in and around Antigua Guatemala. He lived an adventurous, creative, and otherwise normal childhood and teen-age years. Prior to turning 18, Jose Antonio and a friend were illegally detained for three months in a Guatemala adult prison for taking a neighbor’s bike without permission. Atkinson regularly visited Jose Antonio and his friend in prison, hired an attorney to resolve their legal situation, took them food and blankets, and gave them relative safety and influence inside the prison walls by making Jose Antonio his “purchasing agent” for crafts Atkinson would buy from the other prisoners.

On Jose Antonio’s 22nd birthday, Patrick Atkinson took Jose Antonio and several other children under his care out to dinner to celebrate Jose Antonio’s birthday. Early the next morning, Jose Antonio and a friend left Guatemala for the United States. They were arrested on September 25th, 1996 and jailed in Mexico for being in the country illegally. Two days later, Jose Antonio was allowed to make one phone call and he called Patrick Atkinson, who agreed to wire Jose Antonio money for bail and to pay the fine, provided that both boys return to Guatemala. They agreed to this, but then didn’t and upon release continued traveling north to the United States. Jose Antonio crossed the Mexican – United States border and reached the Los Angeles area on or around October 3rd, 1996, where he created a new identity for himself, including subtracting several years from his age so that he would qualify for special treatment as an unescorted minor.

Jose Antonio and Patrick Atkinson kept close contact while Jose Antonio lived and schooled in California. Eventually Jose Antonio joined the US Marines, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, California. He was killed by friendly fire on March 21, 2003 while exiting a building he and fellow Marines had just cleared.

Jose Antonio Gutierrez was the first combat casualty of the war in Iraq, according to U.S. military officials.

Given the new identity that Jose Antonio Gutierrez created for himself when he arrived in California, there was initially a tremendous amount of misinformation about Jose Antonio Gutierrez. Some of this misinformation stated that he had lived on the streets his entire childhood, and that he had traveled to the United States when he was 13 or 14 years old. Neither is correct.

Complicating matters and given the worldwide media coverage of Jose Antonio’s death as the first US combat casualty in Iraq, a few groups and several individuals, including people who had never met or even known Jose Antonio, sought to cash in on his life and death, including attempts to claim military benefits, “close friends” who charged to speak at public events, appearances at community military ceremonies and honors, efforts to make anti-war statements, etc.

At the time of Jose Antonio’s death, the official Department of Defense records relating to Jose Antonio Gutierrez’ birth and personal history were based on the story that Jose Antonio had created for himself when he first arrived in the Los Angeles area. This official version conflicted with the documentation, school transcripts, medical care receipts, and photographs of Jose Antonio Gutierrez’ childhood and teenage years that Patrick Atkinson provided to the US Embassy after Jose Antonio’s death. As a result, Atkinson was asked to not attend Jose Antonio Gutierrez’ funeral and internment in Guatemala; a request he honored to avoid conflict and out of respect for Jose Antonio’s sister, life and memory.

Working with the US State Department, Patrick Atkinson helped clarify the true story of Jose Antonio Gutierrez’ life and death, including obtaining and providing the State Department and Department of Defense with copies of Jose Antonio’s teenage school transcripts from Guatemalan schools, photographs of Jose Antonio growing through childhood and his teenage years, photocopies of Jose Antonio’s medical, dental, and other “raising a child” expenses, and the now-iconic photograph of Jose Antonio Gutierrez taken during his 22nd birthday party dinner in Antigua Guatemala, the night before he left for the United States.

In June of 2008, the Honorable James M. Derham, US Ambassador to Guatemala, formally apologized to Patrick Atkinson for the treatment Atkinson had received from government officials following Jose Antonio Gutierrez’s death, funeral, and internment.