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February 02, 2007

SSgt. Hector Leija: "He Chose Army"

What does it say about a country, when we weigh the public's right to know the obvious - that in wartime bullets kill and good men die - more heavily than simple human decency?

A shiver passes through me. This moment was not meant to be shared.

Did Sullivan come home to his beloved Sarah, or did he too fall in battle? Did she receive another letter, this time from his commander, bringing an end to love, an end to life, offering only the cold comfort of knowing he had died gloriously on the field of battle? And if he did, what images did she cling to in the lonely hours of the night when all hope seemed to have stolen away and the dark pressed in, suffocating her with its leaden caress? Whatever images haunted Sarah's dreams, one can be fairly certain she was not tormented by the specter of a bloody hand holding up a bullet that had passed through her husband's brain; nor, one suspects, by visions of pigs:

“The idea is to work with live tissue,” he said. “You get a pig and you keep it alive. And every time I did something to help him, they would wound him again. So you see what shock does, and what happens when more wounds are received by a wounded creature.”

“My pig?” he said. “They shot him twice in the face with a 9-millimeter pistol, and then six times with an AK-47 and then twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. And then he was set on fire.”

“I kept him alive for 15 hours,” he said. “That was my pig.

But in our relentless quest for information, our take no prisoners refusal to sanitize this war there is no room for the feelings of grieving family members. We want to see the dead bodies, the caskets, the hideous wounds. We want names, dates, places, all the gory details.

I was busy Monday morning.

And so there was a thing I failed to notice, when I included Hector Leija in my Monday post.

I did not have time to watch the video Damien Cave attached to the story he filed that day. A story I linked to. A video that is still available on the Times' web site despite the Army's objections. Despite the knowledge of how upsetting it is to the family of Staff Sergeant Hector Leija. And so I did not see that a good man was dying.

No doubt the Times regrets the error. They are sorry if continuing to show the final moments of Hector Leija's life seems in any way... insensitive. But since the military has not made a big enough fuss in the past when they have published photographs that violated the embed agreement, their position is that it doesn't matter that Damien Cave clearly violated it this time. Rules, you see, are not for the media, and unless the military and the government go to the mat each and every time to enforce them, the press are justified in ignoring them altogether.

And as for Hector Leija, his life was irrelevant. He served his purpose: to "prove" Damien Cave's point. That nothing was accomplished by the fight on Haifa Street that day. That point comes across loud and clear, if you can stand to watch the video or read his screed. But I have a feeling Hector Leija would have told a different story. Nathan Kooiman speaks of his friend:

"He was an amazing soldier. That guy could out PT anybody. He always had a super neat uniform and he had a bald head," says Kooiman. "He was an all around good guy."

The Mission native says the two it hit off since they came from the same area.

"He was quite the jokester. I remember him playing jokes on our 1st sergeant all the time. He was also quite a ladies man. He always had beautiful girlfriends," recalls Kooiman.

Despite losing a close friend in Iraq, he says the fight is a must. Kooiman says Leija wouldn't want the war to end right now.

"I think it's absolutely necessary," he tells us. "You hear a lot of people complain about the war. Three thousand is a lot of soldiers. I had a lot of friends pass away. It's rough."

Kooiman hopes his friend is never forgotten.

He is not the only one who remembers:

"It doesn't hit you hard till it's at home, and basically when you turn on the television and see one of your own kids is gone," says Raymondville teacher Richard Garcia. "It's just real hard for you to accept."

It was ten years ago since Garcia taught Hector Leija welding, carpentry, and leadership skills.

He describes Leija was a good person with a good heart.

"I feel real bad. His mom, his mom is a good person, volunteering her time here at the school for years," Garcia tells us. He says Leija's mother was a pillar of support for her son.

News of the staff sergeant's death has been difficult for Garcia.

He tells us, "I just wish that I could have said that I was real proud of him."

He had reason. Hector Leija could have done anything he wanted to. His future was bright. But among all the professions he could have chosen, he wanted to serve his country. He chose the United States Army:

Like many people before him who grew up in an area where good jobs are hard to come by, Staff. Sgt. Hector Leija joined the Army right out of high school.

But Leija, 27, was different. He had options, which makes his recent death in Iraq harder to bear for those who knew him here as a standout Bearkat at Raymondville High School, or for his parents who raised him on farm worker wages in a humble home that borders grain and sugarcane fields that define this region of the Rio Grande Valley.

In school, where flags flew at half-staff Thursday, he had been a member of the National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bible Club, FFA, Science Club and an athletic academic team. He played football and was honored as the citizen of the month, according to the Class of 1997 yearbook.

"He got accepted to Baylor, he got accepted to everywhere, but he chose Army," said Leija's brother Robert, 24, standing on the family's front porch.

It was so hard, not to be overcome with anger at the Times' callous treatment of the life of Staff Sergeant Hector Leija. I forced myself to watch that video. I watched him speak, so full of life one moment, calling the shots, clearly in command.

And in a moment everything changes and his men are devastated. But even then you can see that he is still there. Because they don't fall apart. They continue to do their jobs, even though they are in shock, even though they are torn apart. Even though his life is slowly slipping away he is leading them, still. This is a man to be proud of. A man to honor, by refusing to give in to the numbness.

And half a world away, his other family, the one he was born with, gather to do just that:

As yellow ribbons flapped in the cool breeze, Johnny Garcia waved a small American flag as he remembered the boy who grew up to become a hometown hero.

“He had a good heart. He was full of life,” Garcia said of Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija as a long procession escorted the hearse that carried his body.

“He was a good friend for a long time in grade school,” Garcia said as his wife and two boys waved small American flags on Hidalgo Avenue late Thursday afternoon. “He’s a hero. He died serving his country.”

That is why I came back, to write about him one last time. Because I could not let the New York Times have the last word. These are the people who knew Hector Leija, who served with him, who raised him, who went to school with him. They knew his heart.

You let them tell you if it was all for nothing. For myself, I am humbled that this nation still produces such men.

Posted by Cassandra at February 2, 2007 08:56 AM

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I want to know where they come from - how do such men still exist in the world we live in. When do they start believing that making the ultimate sacrifice is something they need to do...and follow through on that. The place themselves in harm's way, for total strangers.

Yes, where do they come from.

Posted by: Kris, in New England at February 2, 2007 03:52 PM

I don't know.

I just know that I felt very small writing this today.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 2, 2007 04:08 PM

Do not feel small. I strongly suspect that this man would want each and every one of us to stand tall and be proud of him and of our nation.

I always feel a cavern form in my chest when I consider all that is given by the men and women who serve us. I never have the right words. So I can only thank SSgt. Leija, his family, and you too for your efforts Madam Cassandra to share this information.

Posted by: bthun at February 2, 2007 05:29 PM

FYI-Sadly, Major Sullivan Ballou was killed shortly after writing the letter to his wife. The details are available at Wikipedia or an online search will give details.

Posted by: Alan at February 2, 2007 08:38 PM

"For myself, I am humbled that this nation still produces such men."......and this despite many who deride them for their choice, belittle them for making such a "foolish" decision ,denigrate them for now being "stuck" in Iraq. People whom choose to protect the freedoms of our home ,and to risk all, willingly, to bring those freedoms to those who haven't them aren't deserving of scorn nor derision, they are to be thanked ,profusely ,and honored and revered. That some cannot comprehend the choice of sacrifice is a shortcoming of those whom will not choose and cannot find the value in such sacrifice, not ,not of those whom have made the choice to do so. Damien Cave and those of his ilk will never be so fortunate as to be deserving of such honor, never.

Posted by: Edward Lunny at February 3, 2007 09:12 AM

Sgt. Leija has been lost, apparently in a firefight with Sunni Insurgents.
Is this going to help make America safer? Or, is it going to help Iran backed shia militias to gain control of Iraq?
Our brave soldiers need our support. However, one has to wonder what the end result of their sacrifice will be. In this case, we are doing the dirty work for the Shiites.

Posted by: Chamblee54 at February 4, 2007 01:15 AM

These guys are embedded right? To me that means they report what they see, so long as its not secret nor classified. I can see waiting untill the family is notified, but not keeping a lid on this. If we don't want to see these things, we shouldn't embed journos.

Posted by: annak at February 4, 2007 02:55 PM

A general once said, whose name now escapes me, something to this affect, which I am paraphrasing;
I thank God every day for such men. They are called in their hearts to serve, and so in every generartion in this country, they come. They come because it is their nature to do so. I thank God everyday, for those who willingly join , to serve and fight and protect this country, and I rue the day, when ever there is a generation, when we say , come and serve , we are in trouble, we need you now, and no one heeds the call. I served in the military , from the mid 80's till 90, and am currently thinking of going back in, or going as a private contractor, it is not dificult to explain, I have a heart for service, such as clergy or doctors, or nurses, and the like. As a matter of fact, it is military soldiers that , according to the Bible, God himself admonishes and warns all who would dare hurt or oppose or kill, "those soldiers who are called by MY NAME , for the carry within them the sword of the Spirit of Truth."
For some, it is a job or a carreer, or whatever, but for most, it truly is a calling.

Posted by: phil at February 4, 2007 02:55 PM

I was in Hector's Company from 1997-2000 and was deployed with him in Macedonia. In a Company of 111 soldiers (Charlie Company 1/18th Infantry) he was one of the nicest, smartest guys. When I was getting out and studying to get into college he helped me refresh my Algebra skills...

I'll never forget Hector. He was a great soldier and a great person.

Posted by: doug ernst at February 13, 2007 11:21 AM


Thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment.

We can't do much (we civilians and family of military) at least to repay those of you who serve. But we can make sure what you do for us is never forgotten.

And we do thank God, for each and every one of you. I hope you guys know that.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 13, 2007 11:34 AM

I met Hector when I went to Basic Traning in Fort Benning,Georgia in 1997.From that moment we met we became very good friends.When we got to Germany we found out that we were roommates and that was the beggining of the two of us to become more than friends we became brothers for live. I will never forget you Hector you are the biggest hero I ever know.
Hector que Dios este contigo y con tu familia.
The Decatrel Family

Posted by: Carl at February 15, 2007 05:27 PM

Carl, thank you so much for your comment, and for the remembrance.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 15, 2007 05:49 PM

My name is Jerremy Kitterman and I met Hector Leija in Schweinfurt Germany in 1999. From the minute I met him we were good friends and spent a lot of time together at work and during our off time. I consider Hector Leija to be one of my closest friends and one of the few people that I could truely count on. I served with Hector in two different tours in Kosovo, he is the epitome of a Soldier. I could sit on here all day and tell stories of how great of a man that he was but unless you met him you would never understand. If you were one of the people that Hector considered to be a friend, then you had a true friend that would literally give his life to save yours. Hector, you will be in my thoughts and prayers and the world will never be the same with out you. I am a better man because you are my friend, you will be missed.

Posted by: jerremy kitterman at February 23, 2007 02:08 PM

Thank you so much Jerremy. We're so sorry for your loss, but grateful that you took the time to give us a better understanding of the kind of man SSgt. Leija was. I hope these notes will be a comfort to others who knew him, and a visible testimony that he has not been forgotten.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 23, 2007 02:17 PM

I met Hector when he was a private in Germany. He was so dedicated at his job with a great attitude. I was a Squad leader in the same company that was able to work and see Hector grow into the soldier and man that he was. He always had a smile and upbeat sense of humor. I wish their were more men in this world like him. I send my blessing out to his family and close friends. He will be missed very much! Hector affected everyone that he came into contact with and became part of their lives. Great man and soldier was lost but will never be forgotten!

Posted by: Rodriguez at March 11, 2007 05:01 AM

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