The Unknown Soldier

A year ago, newspapers reported that a 40-year-old staff sergeant from Corpus Christi had died in Iraq, the 239th U.S. fatality since the war began. But the story of Hector Perez doesn’t end there.

The first time Elisa Perez ever feared for her life, she was taking a shower. It was an early April morning, more than a year ago. The warm water was spraying her face and neck when her chest began to pound. The bathroom spun and lost its contours, turning into a humid blur. She felt nauseated, and she pushed open the sliding glass door and felt her way out of the tub and the bathroom. She shuffled into the kitchen, reached for the phone, and dialed 911. “I’m having a heart attack,” she sputtered into the receiver.

At the hospital, the technicians gave her an EKG. As she waited for the results, her skin was tingling and her heart was beating too fast: a heart attack, she was sure. The doctor came and sat down with her. “That’s not it,” he said, looking into her face. “I know exactly what’s happening to you.” Elisa began to cry.

Is your husband away?”

Yes.”

Hector had been gone for a month. It wasn’t the first time. There had been Kosovo and Korea, even a stint in Bosnia just after he and Elisa had conceived their third child. He was a bona fide infantryman, the kind of guy who would boast, “When the shit hits the fan, I want to be there.” Each time he was about to leave on a deployment, he’d walk around the house in a sudden bout of low-intensity panic, reminding Elisa to shut the doors whenever she went out, turn off the appliances, until she had to cut her husband off. “Hector,” she’d admonish him lightly, “how long have I been doing this?”

But this time things were different. In Hector’s ten years of active service, Iraq was his first war. He had sensed it was coming; the terrorists had killed thousands when the Twin Towers came down, and Hector fiercely agreed with his president when he said it was the nation’s obligation to preempt future attacks. “They hit us first. We have to hit back,” he’d tell Elisa, his adrenaline pumping already. But in the days before he left Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, for the Middle East, he had become unusually quiet, as if he were worried. And when Elisa came home after kissing him good-bye on February 28, she noticed the dreadful spaciousness of his absence for the first time. When he’d call home now, it was for five minutes. In his pictures from Iraq, his ribs poked through his T-shirt.

Staff Sergeant Hector R. Perez, age 40. Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Ray High School graduate. Father of three. Hater of pickles.

The doctor looked at Elisa and said, “What you’re experiencing is an anxiety attack.”

Maybe she’d just been watching the news too much. The television was religiously tuned to CNN, even overnight, a fact that was beginning to annoy her daughters. But Elisa needed to know everything, even if it raised her stress level. She knew when the soldiers began creeping into southern Iraq through Kuwait on March 20, knew when they marched into central Baghdad nearly three weeks later and toppled the cruel dictator’s statue. She knew when thousands of Muslims peacefully protested the U.S. occupation and when Iraq’s provisional government was sworn in. She rejoiced when they saved the girl, a petite young American private named Jessica Lynch, and had grieved when four young Marines became the first casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the victims of a helicopter crash. After that the death toll began to rise like a flood: slow at first, and then fearfully fast. Some died as soldiers are expected to die, in an exchange of gunfire, a roadside bomb. Others perished in sadly simple ways: He died from pneumonia. He fell off a roof.

On the afternoon of July 24, Elisa was still a ball of nerves, but she didn’t know that the body count was up again, to 241. Around lunchtime she returned from taking fourteen-year-old Marla to the doctor to get her allergy shots. Every afternoon Elisa reported to her cashier’s job at the post exchange at Fort Campbell, and this day was no different, so she made mental plans to fix a quick sandwich and bolt out the door once she was home. But as she pulled up to the driveway, Marla noticed the men.

Mom,” she said. “Look. Those two soldiers.”

They were parked in front of the other side of their duplex. Elisa’s heart began to pound again, and she burst into prayer. Oh, no, dear God. Oh, no, dear God. The two soldiers approached her tan Mazda as she drove up, and when she got out of the car and looked into their grim faces, her eyes filled with tears.

Don’t,” she pleaded softly, shaking her head.

Are you Mrs. Perez? We need to go inside.”

She had first spotted him through the smoke of a club called Cowboys. He was a surfer back then, and he stood there, with his slightly feathered chestnut-colored hair, in his carpenter pants and his surfer’s shirt. “Mmmm!” Elisa said to her friend Martha when they walked by him at the bar. Maybe he’d come by if she sent off the right vibes. She waited. Her frustration mounted. And then, at about one-thirty in the morning, just before it was time to go, he walked up and asked her to dance.

I met a guy!” Elisa gushed to her mother when she got to their home on St. Charles Street, in the old section of Brownsville. She was 23 years old, and she had been moping after a recent breakup. The surfer had asked for her number. He was from Corpus Christi, he had said, but had moved to Brownsville to spend some time with his older sister, Rosa Anna, who was like a second mother to him, and to take classes at the local college. He had been serving in the National Guard since his high school graduation. As Elisa was going over all this in

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