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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Spc. Marisol Heredia, 19, El Monte; dies after being badly burned in Baghdad

September 23, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Marisol Heredia had a reputation as a strong-willed, perceptive young woman who, in the words of her older sister Claudia Billiot, "if she wanted to do something, was going to do it, no matter who said no."

It was that single-mindedness -- to serve, to experience other parts of the world -- that led Heredia to follow her sister into the Army after high school. Heredia was assigned to the 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.

In war-torn Baghdad, Heredia, who held the rank of Specialist 4, was badly burned in an accident July 18. According to family members, the accident occurred while she was fueling a generator. The incident is under investigation.

Heredia, whose bodily defenses were seriously compromised because of the extent of her burns, was transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. There, with typical determination, she fought her way through a potentially fatal bout of pneumonia.

Billiot, who recently had been discharged from the Army, was at her sister's bedside day and night, "making her laugh, making her smile, reading to her" from cards and letters sent by well-wishing strangers.

Early this month, however, an infection took hold. It dragged Heredia rapidly downhill and, to the devastation of her family and friends, took her life Sept. 7. She was 19.

"Nobody expected it," Billiot said. "Nobody was ready for it. She'd shown so much strength fighting the pneumonia."

As a student at Mountain View High School in El Monte, Heredia had shown a special aptitude for French, a language she studied for 3 1/2 years.

She earned straight A's in the subject, said her teacher, Kris Hanna, and was an enthusiastic vice president of the school's French club.

Heredia "was just somebody you wanted to be around, one of those very rare students that you stay in contact with after they graduate," Hanna said.

She recalled that after Heredia graduated in January 2005, she traveled to Zacatecas, Mexico, and "it was almost like a religious experience. She just soaked up everything about it. For a younger person, she was very passionate about the things she did."

In January, Heredia, who had been in Iraq for three months, and Billiot, who was stationed in Germany, went on furlough to Paris, where they spent three weeks visiting the Louvre and other sites, and the erstwhile French student had a chance to exercise her language skills.

Heredia also showed a keen interest in what she observed in Iraq, once telling her former teacher that Saddam Hussein's palaces were " 'exquisite' -- which was not a word a typical 18-year-old would use," Hanna said.

In July, Hanna sent Heredia a gift package that included Flaming Hot Cheetos, Doritos, beef jerky -- and a French dictionary. She thought it uncharacteristic that the young woman didn't quickly respond with a thank-you letter. Full of dread, Hanna found herself scanning the newspaper obituaries.

Some days later, Heredia's younger sister Carolina, a student at Mountain View High, went to Hanna's classroom and told her of the accident and Heredia's hospitalization.

On Sept. 6, Hanna spoke by telephone with an exhausted and distraught Billiot. The next day, Billiot's husband called to say Heredia had died.

In addition to Billiot and her husband, Shane, of Baton Rouge, La., and Carolina Heredia of El Monte, Heredia is survived by her mother, Rosa Heredia, stepfather, Jose Dominguez, and sister Azucena Dominguez, all of El Monte. She was the fiancee of Travis Beaumont, a soldier she served with in Iraq.

A wake and funeral for Heredia were held last weekend in Baton Rouge. She was buried Sept.16 at Port Hudson National Cemetery in Zachary, La.

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james.ricci@latimes.com

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