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On Father's Day, a Father Pines for His Favorite Son

World War II veteran couldn't dissuade him from joining the Army. Last year the staff sergeant went to Iraq.

June 20, 2004|Bobby Ross Jr. | Associated Press Writer

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," says Perez, 77.

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 touch the ground and should be illuminated 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 had 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 had to hide from his dad.

On the school playground, Hector was always the defender, never the bully -- the kind of boy who protected the little guy.

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 birthday last July, daughter Sandra Vasquez baked a carrot cake and lighted two star-shaped candles.

"OK, Dad, you're going to make a wish," she told him.

He kept his wish to himself -- but his desire was no secret.

Day after day, Esequiel would sit in his wheelchair, keeping up with the news from Iraq and worrying about Hector, 40, an Army staff sergeant serving in the war.

"Let's not watch that anymore," 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 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 soldiers 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 that Corpus Christi, much closer to his wife's family than Detroit, was the place 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 trim 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. Hector was always 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. In his rare visits home, Hector talked to his father about his missions and his love of Army life.

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