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Five Texans’ Stories Bring Iraq War Home

December 21, 2004

The fighting in Iraq stubbornly dragged throughout the long year that’s passing and took lives of troops from across America. Pentagon death announcements, more than 1,200 now, sadly but matter-of-factly catalogue the big picture of this loss.

To glimpse the conflict’s true human cost, however, it helps to narrow the focus _ to a single state and one particularly rough span of early September.

In Texas, it was a time when schoolchildren were getting comfortable at their desks for another year, Friday night football was in the air, farmers were bringing in their corn, cotton, rice and watermelons.

And it was a six-day span when five young Texans died in Iraq.

Their stories, from the words of the Pentagon to the words of those who loved them:

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Sept. 3, 2004: Lance Cpl. Nicholas Perez, 19, of Austin, died as a result of enemy action in Al Anbar province. Perez was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

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Nick and Briana Perez were born 16 months apart, but everyone thought of them as twins.

They were best friends, and when Nick decided to join the Marines, his older sister followed. They shared a simple dream: being stationed together in California, where they would have an apartment and just enjoy being young.

Nick ended up in California, but Briana was assigned to an air station in South Carolina.

They saw each other for the last time in San Diego on Super Bowl Sunday, a couple of weeks before his unit shipped out to Iraq. They watched part of the game, strolled through a shopping mall and went swimming with friends in a hotel pool.

``It was just a really good day,″ Briana remembered. ``We ate at Wendy’s, his favorite place. I can even tell you what he ordered: bacon cheeseburger with pickle and mustard only, and he biggie-sized the fries and drink.″

Nick would often call Briana from Iraq in the wee hours of the morning, but she didn’t mind trading sleep for a chance to talk to him.

Once he started to tell her about a recent convoy mission, and she cut him off.

``I’m like, ‘Nick, I really don’t want to hear it’ because naturally I worried a lot,″ Briana said. ``He always told me he was OK _ that it was dangerous, but he was OK. I just took his word.″

After Nick was killed, Briana drew inward. Even her parents are having a hard time reaching her.

``She lost Nick, she lost everything,″ said her father, Sam. ``They were so close. ... I’m scared because she doesn’t feel it no more.″

Briana says the trouble is that she feels it all too much.

``It’s really hard at work because I wear the same uniform as him,″ she said. ``Every morning I get up and put on a set of cammies, and they say ‘Perez’ just like his did. And it’s hard, it’s really hard.″

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Sept. 5, 2004: Pfc. Ryan M. McCauley, 20, of Lewisville, died in Baghdad when his patrol came under attack by enemy forces using small-arms fire. McCauley was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

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Ryan McCauley didn’t have to go to Iraq. He could have stayed in South Korea, where he spent his first year in the Army as a tank driver. But when some of his foot-soldier buddies got their orders, he put in for a transfer to Fort Hood to make sure he went, too.

``He wanted to go over and fight side by side with them,″ said his father, Mark. ``I didn’t want him to, but I couldn’t tell him no.″

Ryan, 6-foot-4 and sturdy, joined a Baghdad-based unit in late August. His job was to man the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, that can fire 750 heavy rounds a minute.

He called home once, shortly after arriving in Iraq, and told his parents that mortars were going off all around him. He said he was going out on patrol for six days and that they wouldn’t hear from him, but he’d call when he got back.

That call never came.

A sergeant in Ryan’s platoon later wrote to Mark and Michelle McCauley about what happened.

The unit was keeping an escape route clear for another patrol when its Bradley fighting vehicle began taking fire from a nearby building. The infantrymen in the Bradley, Ryan among them, poured into the building and climbed to the roof.

Once there, the soldiers realized they had a real fight on their hands. Ryan was firing the SAW to clear an alley when he was fatally hit by a machine-gun burst.

The McCauleys have a lot to be proud of in Ryan, the sergeant assured them. He recounted being dehydrated in 114-degree temperatures that same day, and Ryan helping the platoon medic strip off his gear and hook up an IV.

``This man barely knows me,″ the sergeant wrote, ``but the concern on his face is one that is given to a good friend or family member.″

Mark McCauley says knowing these details helps in the long process of healing.

``It tells you what Ryan was like,″ he said. ``He was a very caring person. He’d give you the shirt off his back.″

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Sept. 6, 2004: Spc. Tomas Garces, 19, of Weslaco died in Baghdad when his convoy was attacked by enemy forces using an improvised explosive device. Garces was assigned to the Army National Guard’s 1836th Transportation Company, Fort Bliss, Texas.

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Intense, tough, never-give-up _ that is how John Glapa remembers Tommy Garces on the mat.

``When you wrestled him, you were grabbing the tail of a rattlesnake,″ said Glapa, who coached Garces at Weslaco High School.

Garces, deployed to Iraq in early 2004, became the first National Guardsman from Texas to be killed in action since World War II when his convoy was ambushed south of Baghdad.

He joined the Army Guard for the pay and benefits, but his dream was to be a wrestling coach. His strength and agility brought success _ twice he won his district championship and went to the state tournament.

Glapa and Tommy remained close after graduation. When Tommy visited Texas on leave from Iraq shortly before he was killed, the two spent an afternoon together. They went to a barbecue place for fajita tacos and talked about life and the future.

Tommy had been fun-loving and something of a prankster, but now his demeanor was mature and serious.

``He told me he had a couple of close calls over there,″ Glapa said.

Displayed at the soldier’s funeral was a plaque listing Tommy’s awards, a picture of him wrestling with the inscription ``American hero,″ and a Weslaco High singlet in a mahogany frame. The coach and two dozen wrestlers later went to the Garces home to give the display to Tommy’s family.

``It was shocking, someone you were just with and then you hear the bad news on him,″ Glapa said. ``Nineteen years old and he was gone.″

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Sept. 7, 2004: Spc. Chad H. Drake, 23, of Garland died in Baghdad when his patrol vehicle came under attack by enemy forces using small-arms fire. Drake was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

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When Randi Ewell met Chad Drake, he was already signed up for a six-year hitch in the Army. Four days after they got married, he left for boot camp.

The military was going to be Chad’s career, but he started rethinking that after he and Randi had a baby girl they named Kaylee. The long stretches away from home were hard for him.

Chad deployed to Iraq on March 13, his 23rd birthday.

He was going through a rough time when he left _ two months earlier, his father died from a sudden heart attack, and he worried about who would take care of his mother.

He also knew the family was scared for his safety.

``He used to say, ’Don’t worry about me _ I’m made of titanium. I’m not going down,‴ Randi said. ``Almost every e-mail he would say that.″

Those e-mails and phone calls were frequent at first, but then Randi heard from Chad less and less. When they connected by phone, their chats didn’t last long.

``He was always just so tired,″ she said. ``Whenever he did call, he was calling right before he had to leave or right after he got back from doing whatever he was doing.″

Chad seemed to enjoy what he was doing. He asked Randi to send him big bags of candy for the Iraqi kids, and he said he had picked up enough Arabic to chat with people in the streets.

Randi was told little about Chad’s death. A single shot was fired at his patrol. No one else got hurt. Chad didn’t feel any pain.

Before he deployed, Chad recorded his voice on a talking picture frame for 2 1/2-year-old Kaylee to listen to.

``She knows that Daddy’s in heaven with Granddaddy and all the angels,″ Randi said. ``She asked what happened because she watches all her Disney movies. I told her that Daddy got hurt but that he was a hero like ‘Hercules.’ That’s one of her favorite movies right now.″

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Sept. 8, 2004: Spc. Lauro G. DeLeon Jr., 20, of Floresville, died in Balad when improvised explosive devices detonated near his convoy. DeLeon was assigned to the Army Reserves 644th Transportation Company, Beaumont, Texas.

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Grace Lopez was driving along a busy San Antonio street in July, picking up donations for her church, when ahead she saw a soldier on foot. When we get closer, we’ll wave, she told her brother in the passenger seat.

They waved, and the soldier waved back. Then Lopez saw his face and was stunned _ it was her son, Lauro DeLeon, on leave from Iraq.

``I just braked there and praise God that there were no cars behind me,″ she said. ``I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he said, ’I wanted to surprise you.‴

Lauro’s body clock stayed on Iraq time, so he slept by day and was awake at night. His mother stayed up with him to pray, look at digital photos on his laptop and talk about what he saw in the war zone.

``He said, ’There’s some things that I cannot share with you,‴ Lopez said. ``I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ’There’s some things that they’re not good for you to know.‴

After high school, Lauro worked with friends washing 18-wheelers. He started thinking about joining the Marines and later the Army Reserve.

When it came time to sign the enlistment papers, Lauro gave his mother veto power.

``He said, ’Mom, you tell me and I won’t go,‴ Lopez said. ``And I said, ’I want to say no, but I cannot stop you from being who you need to be.‴

Losing Lauro didn’t drive Lopez to despair over the missed chance to protect him. She blames no one, saying her son’s life was in God’s hands the whole time.

While Lauro has been taken away, Lopez clings to that July day and the memory of a young man in desert camo walking her way.

``I know that he would not want me to break down,″ she said, ``but to put on my gear like he would put on his gear, and go forward.″

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