March 21, 1983 to Sept. 6, 2004

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On this Memorial Day 2008, a U.S. Marine is remembered for his sweet heart and belief in future generations, a belief his family gives voice to through a foundation bearing their fallen hero’s name.]

“Hearts and minds, gents”

Lance Cpl. Joseph C. McCarthy, 21, would kneel down and clown around with Iraqi children, dispensing fistfuls of candy (which he always carried), even in dangerous situations. “Hearts and minds, gents,” he would quip, leveling a frisky grin at fellow Marines concerned for his safety.  McCarthy’s sweet-dispensing ways won him the nickname “Willie Wonka.”

Joe’s mother, Rhonda McCarthy of St. John’s, AZ, said her son believed Iraqi children “were going to change the world.”  On Easter Sunday in 2004, she said, he handed out candy to youngsters at a military checkpoint west of Fallujah while strangers, who could have been insurgents, looked on. “He did it because he loved kids,” Rhonda McCarthy said. “Joe was the peacemaker that day, and they were all laughing and joking within minutes.”

Couldn’t wait to…get in the corps

Hardly more than a kid himself, the Arizona native enlisted in U.S. Marine Corps during his senior year at St. Johns High School. “He couldn’t wait to get out of high school and get in the corps,” said his grandmother, Paulette Johnson of Concho, CA. “He even did the paperwork to enlist before he graduated.”

Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Camp Pendleton, Joe McCarthy was scheduled to ship out to boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001. Although the attack on the U.S. delayed his trip by three days, it hardened his resolve to serve. “Never once did he question what he was doing,” his mother said. “He was proud of what he did.”  During one leave, he told her, “If you had seen the faces in that country.  Mom, this is where I belong.”

He loved Sammy Sosa, Mike Ditka, Michael Jordan

McCarthy was on his second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on Sept. 6, 2004, when a bomb-laden vehicle exploded near a U.S. military convoy outside Fallujah in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. One of seven Marines killed that day, he was due home in thrity days to join his bride of one year.

McCarthy married Amanda Rae Salazar, his high school sweetheart, on September 20, 2003.  While in boot camp, he wrote to his wife, “I would not trade my life for anything. To me, I have the perfect life; perfect parents, perfect friends, perfect you, perfect job, perfect everything.”  He had a whole roster of loves: Sammy Sosa, Mike Ditka, Michael Jordan, basketball, the Chicago Cubs, Bears, Bulls, movies and music.

“Everyone loved Joe just for being funny, caring Joe,” his wife Amanda said. “He absolutely exuded light, and it spread to everyone he knew. I am proud to be his wife, and proud to support our military. He was living his dream.”

Stories about “Willie Wonka”

Stories about “Willie Wonka” bring some comfort to his widow. Serving in Iraq for her husband was “all about those little kids,” she said. “Someday, when they grow up, they’re going to remember Joe as their hero.”

Aside from his wife, Amanda McCarthy of Fallbrook, Ca. (formerly of St. Johns) and his parents, Christopher and Rhonda McCarthy, Joe McCarthy is survived by sisters Stephanie and Jennie McCarthy of St. Johns; grandparents Paulette Johnson, of Concho, CA and Jerry Wilson, of Chicago, Ill.  His Poppy and Nana, whom he loved very much, preceded him in death.

The Cpl Joseph McCarthy Foundation

McCarthy’s family has established The Corporal Joseph McCarthy Foundation, whose mission is to “Reach Out to the kids who need it most, and to keep patriotism alive in our communities. To help kids help themselves stay interested and focused on their education. To always remember those who have served their country and show those who are serving we care. We will never forget those who gave the most to defend freedom!” You may visit the website at  [KBL]