RAMIREZ: FAMILY, NEIGHBORHOOD STUNNED AT CAPTURE.
Yellow ribbons and American flags flew in the East Los Angeles home of captured Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, a soldier who represents the best of the neighborhood, family and friends said Thursday.
``He is just a good American boy. He went in for his country, and he is very patriotic,'' said Frank Jasso, great uncle of Ramirez, one of three Americans captured Wednesday near the Macedonian-Yugoslavian border.
``He's doing what he was sent in to do. I think we're doing the right thing. They're going in to protect the people in Kosovo. Why should people take it upon themselves to go in and kill women and children? War is for men against men, not against women and children.''
A childhood friend of the 24-year-old soldier said he was shocked to see how Ramirez looked on the Serbian television broadcast of the three captured servicemen.
``He looked scared that he was going to die, that they're going to hurt him,'' said John Hernandez, who lives two houses down from the Ramirez home. ``The way he looks on his face, he looks really scared. We just wish that we could hear that he's OK.''
Yet other friends and neighbors said they believe Ramirez, a wiry high school wrestler raised in a tough neighborhood, has enough discipline and smarts to make it through this ordeal alive.
``Andrew is serving his country. That is his desire, to always serve his country,'' said a cousin, Leo Rodriguez, holding back tears.
``He's doing what he wanted to do - and he's a tough kid.''
Army officials came by the Ramirez home 10 p.m. Wednesday to notify the family that he had been captured.
Ramirez's brother, Steven, an Army veteran and Los Angeles police detective stationed in Van Nuys, was in seclusion Thursday with his parents.
In a statement, he said, ``I am extremely appreciative of the concern from everyone, and will be spending time with my family to deal with this difficult situation.''
Police Cmdr. Dave Kalish said he had spoken with the detective and offered him and his family the support of the Los Angeles Police Department.
``This is obviously a very difficult time for him and his family. He told me that he loves his little brother very much and is very worried,'' Kalish said. ``But he told me that this brother is a brave soldier and he's confident that he'll be strong through this entire ordeal.
``He was particularly appreciative of Mayor (Richard) Riordan, who personally called him this morning, expressing concern and support of all Angelenos.''
Ramirez's neighbors and friends gathered at his childhood home on Eastmont Avenue to offer comfort to family members and recall him as a friendly man who liked to work on his cars and play with his dog, Max.
``It just rocked us,'' said Armando Camarena, his uncle.
``Twenty-four hours ago, I found out there were POWs. Less than 12 hours ago, I found out it was my nephew. I was viewing it from the outside. Now we are riding in the center of a tornado.''
A second cousin, Olivia Rodriguez, a receptionist at the family parish St. Alphonsus, prayed for Ramirez's safe return.
``You always hear people say that you don't think that it's going to ever touch your family, but it does. Who in the world would have thought?'' Rodriguez asked.
Family and friends alike spent Thursday watching newscasts and waiting for any word of his condition. They were stunned to see him displayed on television by the Serbians.
``Everybody is shocked. We can't believe it. They said they were going to be tried tomorrow, for what? I hope they just go over there and get them,'' Rodriguez said.
A longtime dream
From age 16, Ramirez couldn't wait to graduate high school so he could enter the Army and serve his country, he told his family.
Arlina Montez, a secretary at Schurr High School in Montebello, remembered Ramirez as a good student with a quick smile and a love of cars. ``He would always ask if I wanted him to fix my car,'' she recalled.
He took gifted and talented classes his sophomore year. ``He made the honor roll junior year,'' she said. ``I guess he cared about our country. He took a lot of history and American literature.''
Upon graduating Schurr High in 1992, Ramirez enlisted for what would be the first of two tours.
Ramirez served in Bosnia, an experience that cousin Virginia Hernandez said was frightening for him. ``He saw bodies and carcasses in Bosnia and it was devastating to him, yet he liked helping people,'' she said.
After his first tour of duty, Ramirez re-enlisted last year.
Hernandez said he had the opportunity to leave the military but he just loved it and talked about it all the time.
On leave in December, he returned as he always did to the close-knit neighborhood of modest homes. He told Virginia Hernandez how he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother Steve, 31.
``He was telling me how thrilled he was with the Army, and he wanted to become a police officer like his brother,'' Hernandez said.
Ramirez's parents are divorced. His father is a computer programmer, and his mother works at Kmart in Montebello and as a teacher's assistant at Eastmont Intermediate School.
Phil Wilkinson, store manager where Ramirez's mother worked for about 10 years, said he remembers the two boys. ``They are are all-American boys - real clean cut, real polite,'' he said.
Ramirez's mother knew the dangers of having a child in the military, he said, adding, ``She was concerned but real proud of her boys.''
A neighbor of Ramirez, Mike Lara, 46, said Ramirez used to take care of his mother's dogs when she was ill years ago.
``Who knows what they'll do to him? NATO wants these POWs to be released. How can they expect that to happen when we're over there bombing their country? They're going to use that as revenge,'' Lara said.
``I feel torn both ways. I know we're there and it's right but when it strikes home, it makes you wonder why we're there,'' he said.
Across the street from the Ramirez household, sisters Henrietta Ozuna and Amparo Lopez could only think of Ramirez as a young boy.
``It's a terrible tragedy. This morning I saw the pictures on TV. I thought, oh my God. It's little Andy,'' Ozuna said.
``He was very serious but friendly and hard-working. It's very devastating. We started crying. We're just praying that everything goes right,'' Lopez said.
Neighbors and friends brought baskets of flowers with Easter lilies and roses to the doorstep of the home.
Staff Writers Lisa Weiss and Deborah Sullivan contributed to this report.
Photo: (1--Color) Serbian television shows captured American soldiers, from left, Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez of East Los Angeles, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone and Spec. Steven M. Gonzales.
(2--3) A Schurr High School yearbook photo from 1989, above, shows a young Andrew Ramirez itching to join the Army. At right, flags and ribbons adorn the front of Ramirez's parents's house in East Los Angeles.
Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Special to the Daily News