BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 1614 words
DATELINE: CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas
Esequiel Perez never bragged about his service in World War II. If anything, the soft-spoken veteran downplayed his role.
“I didn’t go into too much combat or anything,” the 77-year-old says.
Yet his children – Yolanda, Rosa Anna, Sandra, Joel, Debra, Hector and Zeke – grew up knowing that their father had done his part to defend the world, and why.
In the Perez family, soldiers’ sacrifice was honored and the nation’s freedom celebrated. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were times for reverence. When the children erected a flag pole in the front yard, Esequiel welcomed it – but warned that the stars and stripes must not ever touch the ground and should be lighted if flown at night.
“That’s how proud my dad is of this country,” said Rosa Anna Garza, 48.
He also wanted an easier life for his children than he had – he still has nightmares involving foxholes, and blames grenades for his hearing problems – so he never pushed them to join the military.
For No. 6 child Hector, though, the Army beckoned.
A muscular sort who played football and could hit a baseball a mile, Hector was the one his brothers and sisters always suspected was their father’s favorite. There was something about the way he clicked with his dad.
Only Hector could get away with hiding comic books under the house – to read when he got in trouble and made his dad chase him.
On the school playground, Hector was always the defender, never the bully – the kind of boy who protected the little guy.
And then there was his dad’s patriotism: “Hector was the type of kid, he picked up on that quickly,” Garza said.
At 18, Hector told his father he planned to join the Army Reserves.
“Why don’t you go to college and forget the Army?”‘ Esequiel said.
“Nah, I like the Army,” Hector said.
Hector did attend the University of Texas at Brownsville off and on. While living in the Rio Grande Valley town, he met his future wife, Elisa. After they married, he enlisted in the regular Army.
“For him, it was important to follow in my dad’s footprints,” Garza said. “He wanted to be in the infantry, just like my dad. My brother could have had a desk job, but he didn’t want to be that. That wasn’t him.”
When Esequiel celebrated his 77th birthday last July, daughter Sandra Vasquez baked a carrot cake and lit two star-shaped candles.
“OK, Dad, you’re going to make a wish,” she told him before he blew out the candles.
He kept his wish to himself – but his ultimate desire was no secret.
Day after day, Esequiel would sit in his wheelchair, keeping up with the news from Iraq and worrying about Hector, at age 40 an Army staff sergeant serving in the war.
“Let’s not watch that any more,” Vasquez would beg as the television newscasters told of U.S. casualties mounting.
But Esequiel’s eyes never strayed far from the screen. If he kept watching, he thought, he just might catch a glimpse of his son.
In his mind, he replayed his last telephone conversation with Hector before his son’s unit left for the war.
“I was trained to do this, to fight, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Hector said. “If I’m lucky, I’ll be back.”
Six decades before, Esequiel – the son of a Spanish-speaking, South Texas ranch hand – had marked his birthday with a different war in mind.
He turned 18 on July 22, 1944 – a month and a half after the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France that spelled the beginning of the end for Nazi rule in Europe. Two days later, he received his Army draft letter.
After boot camp and jungle survival training, the infantry rifleman boarded a convoy ship for the Philippines, where he helped capture Japanese prisoners and slept in holes he dug.
In the fall of 1945, his unit was sent to Japan to clean up and keep the peace after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, Esequiel moved to Detroit and set about living the American dream he had risked his life to defend.
He worked first in a steel mill, then at a Cadillac assembly plant. He met his future wife, Yolanda – who died in 1985 at age 55 – at a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. Yolanda, a teacher from Sabinas Hidalgo, Mexico, was visiting her sister.
Esequiel decided Corpus Christi, much closer to her family than Detroit, was the place for them to live. He went to work making aluminum at a Reynolds Metals Co. refinery.
When Hector was a toddler, Esequiel took out a $5,000 loan to buy the white frame house with blue window trimming where he still lives.
“It was not in very good shape,” he said. “But I start fixing it, little by little. And they all grew up in this house.”
After Hector joined the Army, Corpus Christi remained his home – the place closest to his heart. But military life kept him from returning often. Even before Iraq, the Army kept Hector on the move, from Kosovo to Germany to Korea.
Sometimes, he went alone. Other times, his wife and three daughters – Marla, now 15; Elisa, 14; and Lily, 6 – joined him.
Hector sent postcards to his dad from all over the world.
“Dad, How are you doing?” he wrote from Belgrade in July 2000. “Fine I hope. As for me I am doing fine.”
In his rare visits home, Hector talked to his father about his missions and his love of Army life.
“He always said, ‘I enjoy jumping out of the planes,’ ” Esequiel said. “He said, ‘It’s beautiful when you’re coming down.’ ”
During one of Hector’s visits, the family stayed up until 3 a.m. About three hours later, Garza heard noise in the kitchen. Hector was filling his backpack with canned goods, to create weight, and preparing to go on an early morning run.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m building endurance,’ ” Garza said. “He believed in what he did and he was very passionate about it.”
Fearful of what his son’s service could mean, Esequiel encouraged him often not to re-enlist. But each time he did.
In the months before Hector left for Iraq, Esequiel – who retired in 1975 from a job-related leg injury – was hospitalized. Problems related to swelling of his leg caused his body to retain fluids and put increased pressure on his heart.
The Army refused Hector’s request to go see his father.
The 101st Airborne Division, a rapid-development air assault division trained to go anywhere in the world in 36 hours, was preparing for war. Soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry could not leave a 15-mile radius around Fort Campbell, Ky.
“He didn’t get to see Dad … and Dad’s heart was just so broken,” Garza said. “Hector would call my dad almost on a daily basis to see how he was doing.”
The calls stopped when the war started. For the soldiers on the front lines, the rare chance to phone home often meant waiting in line for hours. “Hector called his wife once in a while and she’d call us,” Vasquez said.
Two days after Esequiel’s birthday party last July, Hector’s wife called Vasquez from Fort Campbell. She told her sister-in-law to prepare Esequiel: An Army representative was coming to tell him that his son was dead.
Hector was killed along with two other soldiers when their convoy was ambushed by guerrilla forces armed with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.
“My dad was stunned at first,” Garza said. “He didn’t believe it.”
Despite his devastation, Esequiel knew that if his son had to die, this is the way he would have wanted to go.
“He didn’t have to go to Iraq if he didn’t want to,” Esequiel said. “He said, ‘Nah, I’m going.’ ”
Actually, Hector did not have a choice of staying home, Vasquez said. But he probably would have gone even if he did, she said.
“He was a believer that if we saved 100 people and 1,000 of them (soldiers) died, it was worth it,” she said.
When Elisa received Hector’s boots weeks after his death, she found the names of their daughters written inside.
“He was out there protecting his girls’ freedom,” said Garza, an elementary school teacher in Los Fresnos in the Rio Grande Valley.
Family, friends and strangers gathered at the Corpus Christi Cathedral on July 31 to pay their respects to Hector, who was buried in Brownsville.
Esequiel made sure that his son received a proper send-off.
“Every time he’d go to the coffin, he’d touch his medals and make sure he had his medals,” Garza said. “He was so proud of him.”
Months later, pictures of Hector – posing in his fatigues, holding his daughters, standing outside the U.S. Capitol after running a Veterans Day marathon – dot the round oak table in Esequiel’s kitchen.
A certificate of remembrance awarded by the USO of South Texas hangs on the refrigerator. Replicas of Hector’s war medals, casings from the 21-gun salute at his funeral Mass and other memorabilia fill a nearby china cabinet.
There’s even a $1 bill in the cabinet – put there by Hector’s youngest daughter, Lily.
“She still doesn’t understand,” says Hector’s oldest sister, Yolanda Rodriguez, 49. “That’s why she put the money there, so he can have spending money.”
Vasquez and Rodriguez weep as they reflect on their family’s loss, on how much his widow, daughters, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and, of course, his father, miss him.
As they dab their eyes with tissues, Esequiel sheds no tears. Still, his daughters know he’s hurting. His trips to the hospital have become more frequent. He turns off his hearing aid and tunes out the world more often.
Esequiel, his hands folded calmly on the lap of his gray knit pants, sits in his wheelchair below the same TV where he used to pay rapt attention to the war.
But he stopped watching months ago.
“I don’t care about it anymore,” he says, slowly.
LOAD-DATE: June 20, 2004
GRAPHIC: AP Photos NY318-320