By Reggie Ellis
At the age of 19, Daniel Unger had accomplished things that most won't in a lifetime. He was a fourth degree black belt and a licensed pastor, but most of all he wanted to be a soldier to fight for what he believed in.
His father, Marc Unger, said Daniel's hero was his grandfather, Murray Unger. Murray, who now lives in Flint, Mich. with his wife, Gloria, was a private first class in the Army from 1941-1945. He earned the Bronze Star for his meritorious achievements in combat under the command of Gen. George Patton. Murray operated the .105 Howitzer artillery cannons in France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Northern Africa during World War II. The plaque of his certificate and the medal hang above Marc's computer desk in the front room of their Exeter home on Lenox Avenue.
"He was a war hero and Daniel really looked up to him," Marc said.
Daniel's mother, Lynda, said her son began talking about joining the military during his junior year in high school.
"He liked the discipline, like karate, but wanted to stay near home so he chose the Army National Guard," she said.
Only 17 and a half years old, Daniel's parents signed a waiver so he could join the California National Guard at the beginning of his senior year. Two days after graduating from high school he reported to Fort Benning in Georgia for Boot Camp on June 21, 2003. Daniel was attached to Alpha Company, based in Corona. The group was later transferred to the 1-185th Combat Group, which is part of the 81st Brigade, headquartered in Ft. Lewis, Wash. He received papers notifying him of his deployment to Iraq on Nov. 15, 2003. After getting his deployment papers, Daneil told his father not to worry.
"You have taught me all my life that God has a plan for me," Daniel had told his father. "If God's plan is for me to come home and continue my ministry than there is nothing that can stop me from coming home because Jesus has his hands on me."
In March, her returned to Exeter for a brief stay before being deployed. It was the last time many of his friends, such as Mica Gomez, would see him.
"I expected to see him in a couple of weeks," she said. "I can't even cry anymore. I don't have any tears left."
Black Belt, Golden Heart
Marc started taking karate in 1976. In July 1982 he became a black belt in karate -- the highest color belt. But more importantly, he said, he became a Christian.
"Jesus changed my life and changed the way I treat and care for other people and the way I teach karate," Marc said. "Some people aren't going to walk into my karate shop because there are crosses hanging on the walls. That doesn't bother me because that's who I am."
At 32 years old, Marc and Lynda, were the only religious ones in their families and decided that their children would be raised in the Christian faith. With the exception of their first child, Marc, 32, of Pennsylvania, they homeschooled all of their children from kindergarten through eighth grade with Christian curriculum.
"We have read the Bible to each of our children every night of their life, including the nine months they were in the womb," Marc said. "We read it together as a family every night and we are always at church when the doors are open. There are no excuses. We are there because that's where God wants us."
Marc began his own congregation as Exeter Baptist Church at 132 N. E St., which is also where he teaches karate. Daniel was definitely following in his father's footsteps. Daniel gave his first sermon at the church at the age of 15 and was a fourth degree black belt, out of a possible six, by the age of 18. His siblings all have black belts as well. David, 17, is a third degree black belt; Elizabeth, 13, is a first degree junior black belt; and Anna, 11, is a junior black belt.
"I use my faith to teach children how to treat, respect and talk to people," Marc said. "I instill the Biblical values of discipline, self confidence to train them all their life for an event they pray never happens. But for the crazies that you have to fight, you fight to win and win convincingly."
Marc and Daniel both used their karate to spread the word of God. While it may sound crazy at first, it is quite effective. Marc said he and Daniel, who was a licensed pastor, worked with the Bill Glass Evangelical Association, now called Champions For Life, which organizers missions to prisons and juvenile detention facilities.
"If you tell 1,000 inmates that there is going to be a sermon you'll get 200 who are already Christians to show up and the other 800 won't," Marc said. "If you tell them there is a karate demonstration they are likely to show up."
The faith-based message is interwoven throughout the program to keep the inmates attention. Daniel received an award from association for giving demonstrations and preaching before eight maximum security units in a Santa Rita jail, visiting the Fresno Juvenile Center four times, the Visalia Juvenile Boot Camp 12 times, Valley Teen Ranch twice and even traveling as far as a jail in Wichita, Kan. The plaque is a chrome cross, made from actually bars taken from a jail cell.
"Daniel cherished that plaque," Marc said. "That is one of his most proud accomplishments. He saved a lot of people and brought Jesus Christ into their lives."
Family friend David Theis, pastor of the Tulare Evangelical Free Church, was also part of the Champions of Life program. He said Daniel was unusually mature both in life and his faith.
"It is not ordinary for a man that age to be a licensed pastor," Theis said. "He was a witness to anyone and everyone and God used him mightily to touch a group of people as their peer."
Daniel's quiet confidence transferred over to everything he did in life.
Steve Garver, varsity baseball coach for Exeter Union High School, said Daniel wasn't the best or worst player on the team but he was one of the most confident. He said Daniel quietly worked his way back from a knee injury never complaining to his coaches or teammates. Nicknamed the "Rabbit" for his speed in running down fly balls, Daniel played centerfield and almost never allowed a ball to get by him. Daniel's only worry was that the knee injury would hinder his passing the military physical.
"He was confident that what he was doing [joining the military] is what he was called to do," Garver said. "His duty was to God, his country and he knew he was put in the right place. He felt this is what he was supposed to do despite the cost or sacrifice. Some [students] would brag about what they were going to do in the military, but Daniel's was a more mature sense of duty."
Garver, also Daniel's senior English teacher, said he was a solid student.
"He was fun to have in class," Garver said. "He contributed more thoughtful comments than the rest of the class. He had really looked at an issue from different perspectives."
Larry Fishburn coached Daniel all four years of high school baseball as the frosh coach, JV coach for two years and assistant varsity coach for two years.
"It was a privilege to coach him," Fishburn said. "If I had a son I would want him to grow up to be just like Daniel."
Fishburn said when he needed help moving to a new house Rilea and Daniel were the first ones to show up. He said he was always respectful and pretty much got along with everyone.
"When I heard the news it was a lot to process. I had all these memories running through my head, I was trying to picture what it must have been like over there and I just broke down and cried. I had to leave work early. I couldn't concentrate."
"I believe in what he was doing and I know Daniel believed in what he was doing. I don't think [given the opportunity] that he would change his decision to go into the military. He seemed to have always known that's what he wanted to do."
A Hero Goes to Heaven
On Wednesday morning, May 26 Marc and Lynda Unger saw the black military vehicle pull up to their house on Lenox Avenue to notify them of their son's death two days earlier. The deeply religious family went out to face the news armed with their faith in God and the knowledge that their son said he was doing God's work in the military.
"Our faith is what's holding us up right now," Marc said. "In First Thessalonians, 4:13 it says 'Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.' He has gone to be with Jesus."
Lynda said Daniel loved what he was doing in the military. She said he felt a strong purpose to protect his country from terrorists and to help liberate a people who lived in tyranny.
"He was willing to give his life to fight for what he believed in," she said. "We still support our troops, our country, our leaders and the war."
"On Sept. 11  bad people attacked us and declared war," Marc said. "That necessitated us to respond with force because if we don't respond they will come again. That is what Daniel believed in. That is what our family still believes in."
Daniel was killed on Monday, May 24, when a mortar shell hit near near him at about 3:15 p.m. at their base camp about 25 miles south of Baghdad. The Los Angeles Times reported that the attack also wounded 10 other reservists, including eight men from Unger's 1-185th Combat Group. Unger was the first California National Guard soldier killed in combat in Iraq. Five other National Guard soldiers died serving in noncombat support companies, such as transportation, military police and intelligence units.
"It really brings the war home," his high school baseball coach said. "He was in harm's way every day there. We don't know that kind of fear. He was fighting to bring the people there the peace and comfort that we enjoy here."
Pastor David Theis, a family friend, said the Ungers' faith will guide them through this.
"This is not an end, but a temporary separation," Theis said. "Marc and his family understand they will see Daniel again."
On Saturday, the family was notified that Daniel had posthumously recieved the Bronze Star for bravery and a Combat Infantry Badge given to soldiers for serving in combat, both accolades his grandfather had earned in World War II.
"I didn't want it to happen this way, but he is a hero like his grandfather," Marc said.