|From the Austin
Valley loses two soldiers in Iraq
By LYNN BREZOSKY
Associated Press Writer
HARLINGEN, Texas — Two Army soldiers from the Rio Grande Valley have been killed this week in Iraq, military officials and the soldiers' families said.
Staff Sgt. Hector Leija, 27, died Wednesday in Baghdad of wounds suffered during combat, according to the Department of Defense. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
The Defense Department lists him as being from Houston, but he grew up in Raymondville.
Family members of Pfc. Darrell Shipp, 25, were told Thursday by military officials that their son was killed by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. The Pentagon on Friday released details about the death. Shipp was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood.
Leija was well remembered at Raymondville High School, where he graduated in 1997 after being in multiple clubs, the honor society and the football team.
"He was a good kid. Quiet," said Richard Garcia, who taught Leija high school shop and was his adviser for Future Farmers of America.
"It shocked all of us," he said. "You read or you see somebody got killed somewhere in Iraq — then all of a sudden you realize it's someone from Raymondville, and everybody knows everybody."
Leija is the second native of this town of about 9,700 people to die in Iraq. Since the war began in March 2003, 22 service members from the Rio Grande Valley have been killed in Iraq.
"People are asking 'Why is everyone in Raymondville going into the service?'" Garcia said. "I guess that has to go with the economy. They think they're going to get educated. They didn't count on this happening. Instead of easing up, it's getting worse."
Leija's parents declined to talk to the media. A message on Leija's MySpace site, attributed to the Leija family, says: "Always bound by honor he willingly gave his life ... The cost of freedom is always high."
Shipp's family said their son had been determined to fight in Iraq even though he was the only son and could have gotten an exemption. He joined the military in 2005 so he could better himself and be able to go to school, said his mother, Regina Shipp. He was deployed to Iraq on Oct. 30.
"He just said 'Mom, I knew what I was doing when I joined and it's not fair for me to not go and for my comrades to go,'" Regina Shipp said.
Shipp last communicated with his family over the computer Tuesday night. He was due for a two-week leave in March.
Shipp had four sisters, one of whom is also in the Army and expected to leave for Iraq on June 24. He was born in San Antonio and graduated from Harlingen High School in 2000.
The family was waiting for more word from the Army before making funeral plans.
Herald Tribune (Africa/Middle East) 01/29/07:
A Baghdad apartment becomes a deathtrap for a GI
By Damien Cave
Published: January 29, 2007
BAGHDAD: Hector Leija, a staff sergeant, scanned the kitchen, searching for illegal weapons. One wall away, in an apartment next door, a scared Shiite family huddled around a space heater, cradling an infant.
It was after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, on Haifa Street in central Baghdad, and the crack-crack of machine-gun fire had been rattling since dawn. More than a thousand American and Iraqi troops had come to this warren of high- rises and hovels to disrupt the growing nest of Sunni and Shiite fighters battling for control of the area.
The joint military effort has been billed as the first step toward an Iraqi takeover of security. But in the two dark, third-floor apartments on Haifa Street, that promise seemed distant. What was close, and painfully real, was the cost of an escalating street fight that had trapped American soldiers and Iraqi bystanders between warring sects.
And as with so many days here, a bullet changed everything.
"Help!" came the shout.
"Sergeant Leija got hit in the head," yelled Specialist Evan Woollis, 25, his voice carrying into the apartment with the Iraqi family. The soldiers from the sergeant's platoon, part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, rushed from one apartment to the other.
In the narrow kitchen, a single bullet hole could be seen in a tinted glass window facing north.
The platoon's leader, Sergeant First Class Marc Biletski, ordered his men to get down, away from every window, and to pull Leija into the living room.
"O.K., everybody, let's relax," Biletski said. But he was shaking from his shoulder to his hand.
Relaxing was just not possible. Four meters, or 15 feet, of floor and a metal doorjamb stood between where Leija fell and the living room, out of the line of fire.
Gunshots popped in bursts, their source obscured by echoes off the concrete buildings.
"Don't freak out on me, doc," Biletski shouted to the platoon medic, Private First Class Aaron Barnum, who was frantically yanking at Leija's flak jacket to take the weight off his chest. "Don't freak out."
Two minutes later, three soldiers rushed to help, dragging the sergeant from the kitchen. A medevac team then rushed in and carried him to a Stryker armored vehicle outside, around 9:20 a.m. He moaned as they carried him down the stairs on a stretcher.
The men of the platoon remained in the living room, frozen in shock. They had a problem. Leija's helmet, flak jacket, gear and weapon, along with that of at least one other soldier, were still in the exposed area of the kitchen. They needed to be recovered. But how?
"We don't know if there's friendlies in that building," Sergeant Richard Coleman said of the concrete complex a meter away from where Leija, an easygoing 27-year-old from Raymondville, Texas, had been shot. Biletski, 39, decided to wait. He called for another unit to search and clear the building next door.
The additional unit needed time, and got lost. The men sat still. Sergeant B, as Biletski's soldiers called him, was near the wall farthest from the kitchen, out of sight from the room's wide, shaded window. Woolliss, Barnum, Coleman and Specialist Terry Wilson sat around him.
Together, alone, trapped in a dark room with the blood of their comrade on the floor, they tried to piece together what had happened. Maybe the sniper saw Leija's silhouette in the window and fired. Or maybe the shot was accidental, they said, fired from below by Iraqi Army soldiers who had been moving between the buildings.
Woollis cited the available evidence — an entrance wound just below the helmet with an exit wound above. He said the shot must have been fired from the ground.
The Iraqis were not supposed to even be there yet. The plan had been for Leija's squad to work alongside an Iraqi Army unit all day. But after arriving late at the first building, the Iraqis jumped ahead, leaving the Americans and pushing north without searching dozens of apartments in the area.
An American officer later said the Iraqis were brave to push ahead toward the most intense gunfire.
But Leija's squad had no communication links with their Iraqi counterparts, and because it was an Iraqi operation — as senior officers repeatedly emphasized — the Americans could not order the Iraqis to get back in line. There was nothing they could do.
Barnum stood up, facing the kitchen, eager to bring back the gear left. One foot back, the other forward, he stood like a sprinter. "I can get that stuff, sergeant," he said. "I can get it." The building next door had still not been cleared by Americans. The answer was no.
"I can't lose another man," Sergeant B said. "If I did, I failed. I already failed once. I'm not going to fail again." The room went quiet. Faces turned away. "You didn't fail, sir," said one of the men, his voice disguised by the sound of a man fighting back tears. "You didn't fail."
The piercing cry of an infant was easily identifiable, even as the gunfire outside intensified. It came from the apartment next door.
With more than an hour elapsed since the attack, and after no signs of another shot through the kitchen window, Sergeant B agreed to let Barnum make a mad dash for the equipment.
Barnum waited for several minutes in the doorway, peeking around the corner, stalling. Then he dived forward, pushing himself up against the wall near the window to cut down the angle, pausing, then darting back to the camouflaged kit.
Crack — a single gunshot. Barnum looked back at the kitchen window, his eyes squeezed with fear. His pace quickened. He cleared the weapons' chambers and tossed them to the living room. Then he threw the flak jackets and bolt cutters.
He picked up Leija's helmet, cradled it in his arms, then made the final dangerous move back to the living room, his fatigues indelibly stained with his friend's blood. There were no cheers to greet him. It was a brave act borne of horror, and the men seemed anxious to go.
As Barnum gingerly wrapped the helmet in a towel, it tipped and blood spilled out.
Sergeant B sat down on a chair outside the two apartments and used the radio to find out if they would be heading back to base or moving forward. He was told to stay put until after an airstrike on a building 460 meters away.
A boom, then another even louder explosion hit, shaking dust from the walls. One of blasts came from a mortar shell that hit the building, the soldier said. For the Americans, it was time to go.
Over the next few hours, the platoon paired sprints across open alleyways with bouts of rest in empty makeshift homes. Under what sounded like constant gunfire, the soldiers moved behind the Iraqi soldiers, staying close.
Downstairs in the lobby of a mostly abandoned high-rise on Haifa Street, the sergeant and his men sat on the floor, exhausted. They were waiting for their Stryker to return so they could head back to base. In 14 hours, they had moved through a stretch of eight buildings on Haifa Street. They had been scheduled to clear 18.
A few hours later, the word came in: Leija had died.