Editor’s Note — Nearly a dozen Gaucho alumni have served in Iraq and the Middle Eastern Theater. The last of a three-part series, today’s story looks at an alumnus who died in hostile action.
Sean Brock tried to convince his hung-over friends to hike down the coast from Isla Vista to his home in Redondo Beach – a distance of over 100 miles. It was June of 1998, just after a weekend of partying to celebrate his graduation from UCSB. They could camp on the beach along the way and use the march to break in their new pairs of combat boots.
His friends were used to this sort of thing.
Sean Brock and Conan Chang, a fellow marine, made it about 70 miles south before they called Sean’s mom to be picked up.
“He was just very spontaneous and always into an adventure,” said Lex McMahon, another of Sean’s friends and also a fellow marine. “You knew if you were his friend you were going to go along with that ride.”
It’s been just over three months since a rocket attack mounted by Iraqi insurgents took Sean’s life at a desert camp 75 miles outside of Baghdad. He was 29.
On Feb. 2, Sean called his brother Rayme, his fraternal twin, from the headquarters of the first marine infantry division at Camp Blue Diamond. Rayme said Sean told him he was worried because his unit was sitting in one place for so long and becoming an easy target for insurgents.
During the five to 10 minute conversation, Rayme said Sean spoke of an eerie calm at the base and said he “just wanted to get out of there.”
He was several months into his second tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, after already serving a combat tour in Afghanistan.
Rayme said his brother’s casualty report stated Sean was killed approximately seven hours after their last conversation. Based on reports from Sean’s commanding officers, Rayme said insurgents launched a rocket from outside the base’s defense perimeter, aiming it randomly inside the camp.
Sean was returning from an outhouse when the rocket exploded about 10 to 15 yards away, spraying him with shrapnel and knocking him to the ground.
Rayme said the personnel treating Sean knew instantly he was in grave condition. They evacuated him to a trauma unit within 15 minutes. Rayme said his brother’s physical strength and willpower helped him survive an hour with injuries that usually kill a person within six to eight minutes.
Both political science majors, Sean Brock and Bobby Khullar became fast friends when they met on their first day of classes at UCSB.
“We did the standard things that everyone else did,” Khullar said. “We went to fraternity parties, walked Friday nights with a red cup in our hands, going down Del Playa.”
On their way to campus each day, Khullar, who now lives in the Bay Area, said he and Sean would stage mock debates over national and foreign policy issues to keep their senses sharp. He said they would take turns arguing the pro and con sides of a given topic.
“One of the hardest debates that he had to do was to debate against the military when I had pro-military,” Khullar said.
Sean and Chang enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school in 1993 and joined the reserves as infantrymen. They both used the military to pay their ways through college.
Sean and Chang graduated from college — Sean from UCSB and Chang from USC — the pair sought commissions as officers. On the heels of a prestigious first place finish in the grueling “super squad” competition, they quickly became second lieutenants, and both would later become captains.
“Sean couldn’t really sit still,” Chang said. “He wasn’t content with the status quo. He was always going to improve himself and climb. Once he climbed one mountain he’d find something else, a taller mountain.”
McMahon said Sean had a way of cocking his eyebrow upward right before trying to enlist his friends for one of his adventures. It was the same face he made right before he was about to do something mischievous.
“You didn’t know what it was, but you knew it was going to be fun,” McMahon said. “I always looked forward to that expression on his face.”
McMahon was at the UCSB Financial Aid Office in 1996 when he first met Sean.
“Sean was a reserve marine at the time and he was picking up his GI bill money, and I was picking up my GI bill money … and I saw the haircut,” McMahon said. “It’s pretty hard to miss.”
He said the two bonded quickly over beers at Sam’s To Go and talked frequently about their common military experience.
Along with Khullar, Sean joined McMahon’s fraternity, Theta Chi.
“There’s a lot of components to who Sean was as a person,” McMahon said. If you were close to him and within his inner core of people, he was incredibly talkative. But if you weren’t, he really was an intensely quiet person. He had his beliefs and he stood up for his beliefs, but he didn’t necessarily tell other people about them.”
McMahon was Sean’s “big brother” in the frat and lived on the floor directly above him. Every morning, he said he would come downstairs and see Sean sitting on the couch, locked out of his own room.
“He’d get up to go grab a glass of water in the morning and his roommate or his roommate’s girlfriend would jump up and go lock him out of the room again so they could have their private time,” McMahon said. “And it happened every single day, literally. It’s funny now — it was hilarious to me then. It’s one of those things that always pissed him off.”
Rayme joined the Marines at the same time as Sean, but opted to perform his active duty first and go to college later. Although the military does not allow siblings to be placed in the same platoons, a clerical error added an extra ‘R’ to Rayme’s last name, disguising their identities as brothers.
Not only did they end up in the same platoon during boot camp, Rayme said they ended up sharing the same bunk, and eventually graduated with each other.
Rayme said his brother was always an overachiever. Sean held a political science and a master’s degree from UCSB, and was pursuing a doctorate in public policy administration.
“I was like, ‘Sean, slow down, enjoy yourself,” Rayme said. “I mean he had little gray hairs popping out the side of his head I think because he was under so much stress. He had such a goal to get all this things done in such a short period of time.”
After he got out of the military, Sean planned to take the Foreign Service Exam and wanted to work for the state department.
“It’s strange because I truly feel I haven’t been able to grieve as well,” Rayme said. “I just start thinking about him at odd times.”
McMahon said has a picture of Sean looking down at him from his desk, at the office where he now runs his own business.
“Everyday he’s looking down at me saying, ‘Hey, you’re not doing enough. You haven’t done enough. Keep pushing,’ because that’s the kind of person he was,” McMahon said. “[His friends were] really like a band of brothers. Even though Sean isn’t with us anymore, he’s still very much a part of it. He’s still part of all of our consciousness.”
Khullar said he hopes students at UCSB respect Sean’s sacrifice, regardless of their opinion about the current war in Iraq, which he said he has always been against.
“I just hope that they put some thought into it and realize that one of them went out there defending the country and keeping our shores safe,” Khullar said. “He was in there doing what he thought was right for us.”
In January of 2003, without telling any of his friends, Sean eloped with a woman named Heather, whom he had known for two weeks. He did not let his friends in on the secret for nine months before the couple held another ceremony.
At his bachelor party, before he deployed to the Persian Gulf, Khullar said he and Sean formulated a master plan to have kids at the same time so their children could grow up together.
Khullar said he and another of Sean’s close friends, Louie Schwartz, intend to uphold the agreement. They plan to give their children the first or middle names of Sean or Brock, depending on if their respective kids are boys or girls.
“We’re going to do that to carry on the legacy,” Khullar said.