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‘Just loved serving his country’: Marine with Houston ties remembered after dying of coronavirus

HOUSTON – Staff Sgt. Robert Mendoza was among the few and the proud.

“He just loved serving his country and he was willing to die for his country,” said Yolanda Mendoza, his mother.

Staff Sgt. Mendoza survived war. His assignments took him to Afghanistan in the months following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He braved multiple tours of Iraq. However, it wasn’t the battlefield that lay claim to his life. Mendoza fell victim to COVID-19.

Within days of feeling symptoms, he died at a hospital in San Diego, California — home base since enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1994.

“I don’t even know where to begin with Robert. He knew since middle school he wanted to be a United States Marine,” Yolanda Mendoza said.

By the time he’d reached Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, he really knew.

“I’ll never forget how he came to me... wanted me to sign the papers. And he told me that either way if I didn’t want to sign them he was still going once he turned 18 and I knew he had that determination.”

Mendoza’s determination guided him through a decorated career in the Marine Corps: Jump Master, Scout Sniper Platoon Sergeant, Force Reconnaissance Parachute Rigger, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program Black Belt Instructor — he was determined.

“There were just so many stories that Robert told us and stories that we’ve learned since his passing,” his mother said.

That’s the turn Staff Sgt. Mendoza’s parents wish their son’s story didn’t have to take.

It began after Robert fell ill a couple of weeks ago following heavy rain back home in San Diego.

“At first, when he started feeling bad we thought it was because of that. Maybe he got wet or something like that. Getting a touch of the flu,” Yolanda Mendoza said.

Yet over time his symptoms — headaches, loss of taste, gastrointestinal issues — led Mendoza to take a test for COVID-19. The day after he took the test, he was confirmed positive.

Days later doctors admitted him to the ER.

“That was on a Monday. The Monday after Easter I believe it was. And then by Wednesday he was already in ICU and put on a ventilator and then he passed away,” his mother said.

Staff Sgt. Mendoza leaves behind his parents, sister, and son, Christian.

“Christian was growing up to be Robert’s mini-me,” the family said, sharing stories of Christian’s similarities to his father — from the curls in his hair to his love for martial arts.

Christian is now part of Staff Sgt. Mendoza’s legacy. In death, through shock and sadness, Staff Sgt. Mendoza’s parents shared his message.

“Everybody needs to take it seriously, cause you never know. You don’t know,” said Robert Mendoza, his father.

“You don’t know who is a carrier, you just don’t know. It’s such a silent... quiet thing that... you just never know,” Yolanda continued.

Memorial services will be held in California and Houston at a later date.

Staff Sgt. Robert Mendoza will be laid to rest at Houston National Cemetery.