Three Marines went to a house in Hollywood to tell the father and stepmother of Pfc. Alexander Arredondo that their 20-year-old son had died Tuesday in Najaf, family members said.
The father, Carlos Arredondo, 44, then walked into the garage, picked up a can of gasoline, a propane tank and a lighting device, police Capt. Tony Rode said. He smashed the van's window, doused the van with gasoline and set it ablaze, despite attempts by the Marines to stop him, Rode said.
When they saw the Marines walking toward the front door, "My husband immediately knew that his firstborn son had been killed — and my husband did not take the news well," Melida Arredondo told reporters before police escorted her to the hospital.
"It doesn't surprise me that he was so traumatized. He went crazy," she said.
Police said Arredondo set fire to himself in the process of igniting the van, and that the Marines ended up pulling him from the burning vehicle and extinguishing the flames on him.
"The father was in disbelief, same as any of us would be after hearing this kind of news," Rode said. "But then the father basically loses it. You can only imagine what this father was going through. He snapped, to say the least."
"We have not seen this type of reaction. Every reaction is negative, it's the loss of a loved one," U.S. Marines spokesman Major Scott Mack said.
Arredondo is listed in serious condition with severe burns to his arms and legs in the burn unit of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. Hollywood is about 20 miles north of Miami.
Luz Marina Arredondo, Alexander's grandmother, felt the government was at fault for her grandson's death.
"I blame them a lot," she said. "They send them like guinea pigs over there."
Melida Arredondo said she and Carlos last talked to their son two weeks ago.
Rode said it was too early into the investigation to discuss possible charges against Arredondo.
"We'll see how he recovers before doing anything," Rode said.
U.S. forces in Najaf have been battling for nearly five months against Iraqi militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with the fighting especially intense in the past few weeks.