Longwood soldier Andy C. Morales who died in Iraq laid to rest

Military pallbearers carry the casket Monday, October 3, 2011 of the body of U.S. Army Sgt. Andy C. Morales after the funeral service at River of Life Church in Ovideo. (Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel)

The body of U.S. Army Sgt. Andy C. Morales was buried today after a funeral service at River of Life Church in Oviedo.

Morales was killed in Iraq Sept. 22, the 2-month-anniversary of the birth of his daughter.

The 32-year-old soldier, who was killed in Baghdad, was assigned to the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) of Orlando and was serving in Operation New Dawn, according to the Department of Defense.

When Army officials delivered the news to his wife, Mariela Caraballo-Morales, she could hardly believe it, said sister-in-law Mercian Lesser said from her Sarasota home.

Just five months before, the best friends were married in a celebration that brought together a family that had seen its share of hardships. The young soldier spent just nine days with his newborn, Naiara Morales, before he was deployed, his wife said.

Morales was the second of five children born to a single mother from Puerto Rico who struggled to keep her family safe and secure in Brooklyn, N.Y., family members said.

The close-knit siblings — each born just a year apart — celebrated all their November birthdays together in one party more out of necessity than novelty. Their tightness kept each other out of trouble in the inner city despite the enormous obstacles they faced as a family, they said.

'We were always la familia," she said. "We had to stick together."

Sgt. Morales was the warrior of the clan, always fighting to protect his family and work toward their collective success, his brother and sisters said.

"We were always just skating by," Lesser said. "He always felt the need to fight for us."

He was also the family comic, transforming the most heartbreaking occasions into laughing marathons.

"Andy didn't believe in being angry. He hated it when people were angry with him," said older brother Robert Morales. "He loved seeing people smile, and that's probably the one thing I'm going to miss the most — his smile."

Morales recalled a time when his brother took off his shoes and walked home barefoot with a friend who had had his shoes stolen. "That's the kind of person Andy was," he said.

Younger sister Glorian Morales said her brother was not only her dance partner and a cheating board games opponent, but he also was the father figure of the dad she never had. He was everything to his little sisters, twins Mercian and Glorian, and the youngest Jeannie.

"I am angry at the world, at the military, at myself. I'm angry at the things we had to live through and the constant struggle we faced," she said. "Even though he's gone, we all have a part of him that comes out in us. Sometimes it's his funny jokes or his temper … He's a hero and an awesome brother."

Morales joined the Marines in 2002 but left as a sergeant after four years of active duty at bases in Japan and California.

The family drifted apart as they lived their lives separately in other states, but Sgt. Morales' near-fatal car accident in North Carolina in 2009 helped draw them back together, family said.

Through all of Morales' carefree adventures in life, his relationship with then-friend and now wife Mariela was constant. They kept in touch throughout the years and made their union official when he relocated to Central Florida where she lived.

After his wife became pregnant and several unsuccessful attempts to find work, he rejoined the military — this time with the Army in October 2010. They married April 25 during a small, intimate ceremony.

When his daughter was born, Andy Morales' world changed and he was determined to take care of her and his wife's 11-year-old daughter, Nyobi, said Robert Morales.

On the day he deployed, Glorian Morales said her brother promised to come back. In turn, she made a promise to take care of his family if anything happened.

She has vowed to keep her end of the bargain even if Sgt. Morales didn't, she said.

The family was told the 32-year-old soldier was on a mission when he was shot and killed, but the incident is under investigation, they said.

"Last thing he said was he couldn't wait to see his children," his wife, Mariela, said. "Let the world know he died for his children."

arehernandez@tribune.com or 352-742-5934