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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Sgt. Luis Montes, 22, El Centro; Dies of Burn Injuries in Explosion

October 01, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

Army Sgt. Luis Montes suffered fatal burns as he struggled to free two fellow soldiers from their tank after a bomb went off beneath it Sept. 1 near Abu Ghraib, Iraq, west of Baghdad.

A resident of El Centro, Calif., Montes was able to climb out of the three-man tank but went back to help the two men still stuck inside.

Montes, who suffered burns over more than half his body, was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where, in the presence of his family, he was removed from life support and died Sept. 7. He was 22.

Until he joined the Army, Montes had shown a teenager's typical lack of direction, said his mother, Marisela, who runs a small day-care center in El Centro.

Born in Mexicali, Mexico, Montes grew up in El Centro as a legal resident of the United States. Soccer was his great love, and he played on the Southwest High School team.

But he never put much energy into school. "He graduated with what he needed to get by," his mother said.

Montes and his mother had talked about his plans to attend a technical college in Phoenix, where he would learn a trade. The family had paid the enrollment fee and was to visit the school to find him lodging.

Then one morning he left the house, his mother said. "He came back in the afternoon and told me he'd enlisted," she said. "He said, 'I'm leaving in a month. ... I think I can do more there.' "

His mother saw him off in San Diego on New Year's Day 2003. He seemed to her then a small, thin boy, straining under the weight of a backpack.

"I felt that some part of me was leaving, that I was no longer complete," she said.

That April, at his graduation from boot camp, she saw that her son had filled out and looked more like a man.

Montes was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.

There, he seemed to find himself, his mother said, and he was quickly promoted to sergeant. He applied for, and received, U.S. citizenship. Last year he reenlisted in the Army for a three-year stint and was sent to Iraq in December.

When he returned on furlough in July, he spoke with newer direction about his plans, his mother said. He wanted to buy a house and said he thought he might join the El Centro Police Department or the U.S. Border Patrol.

"I asked why he went into the Army -- [because] they brainwashed him? I could say the Army is to blame. Maybe. But the decision was his," she said. Children "decide because they want to. You're there to support them. But finally the decision is theirs."

At the hospital in San Antonio, another soldier who witnessed the explosion in Iraq told Montes' mother of watching him on fire and yet returning for the other soldiers.

He told her that as Montes was being evacuated by helicopter, he stopped those loading him. "He didn't want to go up in the helicopter until he knew his men were all right," his mother said.

The other two soldiers survived, though one lost a leg and another was burned over 20% of his body, Montes' mother said.

Montes was buried Sept. 16 in El Centro. The Army awarded him a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and gave them to his mother.

"I don't know where all my son's plans lie now. I didn't want a hero. I didn't want medals. I wanted a son," she said. "But I don't have my son. I have his medals."

In addition to his mother, Montes is survived by his father, Alejandro, a construction worker in Mexicali; two brothers, Alex and Alfonso, both of El Centro; and two half sisters, Itza and Alexa, both of Mexicali.

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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War casualties

Total U.S. deaths* as of Friday:

In and around Iraq: 2,706

In and around Afghanistan: 279

Other locations: 56

Source: Department of Defense* Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances

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More Military Deaths appear on Page B14.

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