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MILITARY DEATHS

Soldier's love of books touched others

Wally Longshore, 81, never knew Army Spec. Armando De La Paz Jr., who died in Baghdad, but he plans to honor the young man with a high school reading program in De La Paz's name.

March 08, 2009|Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Army Spec. Armando A. De La Paz Jr. and Wally Longshore, a retired campaign publicist, never knew each other.

It's likely that Longshore, 81, never would have known De La Paz's name if the young man had not lost his life to injuries suffered in a vehicle rollover in Iraq.

But, in his death, De La Paz, 21, has made a lasting impression on Longshore.

De La Paz died Nov. 13, 2008, in Baghdad; the circumstances of his death are still under investigation. He was on his second deployment to Iraq, having served there from December 2005 to October 2006 and returning in December 2007, the Department of Defense said.

Longshore learned of the Riverside soldier's death through a newspaper article.

"I never met him or had any contact with him, but the story moved me deeply," Longshore said recently. "I felt I knew him because I'm an avid reader and he too, such a young man, he was an avid reader. I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit."

The article, which ran in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, motivated Longshore to call Scott Godwin, one of De La Paz's teachers at Arlington High School. Longshore and Godwin spoke about Longshore's idea to honor the young man with a high school reading program founded in De La Paz's name.

Godwin said the idea would be a fitting tribute to De La Paz, who grew up in Riverside, because the two would visit after class to talk about literature.

"He'd come to me and say, 'I need something a bit more challenging,' " Godwin said. "So I'd give him serious books, deep books. And he would just eat these big books up."

De La Paz never failed to quickly read what Godwin threw his way: "The Color Purple," "Kaffir Boy," "Rain of Gold" and even a little Shakespeare.

" 'Bless Me, Ultima' was another he read in two days," Godwin said. "And he understood each book, he got them, very complex stories and heavy issues."

But in class, De La Paz was a student just like any other, keeping his interest in literature quiet.

"He never wanted to be the one answering all the questions, and he didn't talk about the other books in class," Godwin said. "I think he figured other kids didn't share that love."

Longshore said he related to both De La Paz's passion for reading and his wanting to keep the interest low-key.

"There's a kind of loneliness involved for a young person who loves reading," Longshore said. "I've experienced the same thing because it's not something a lot of young people enjoy, and you don't want to be the odd one out."

But a reading program building on the popularity of books like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," then expanding into the serious literature De La Paz enjoyed, could help change a student's perception of reading and books, he said.

"To read a book like the books Armando read really gives you insight into life," Longshore said. "A reader can go from Superman to Shakespeare."

The program is still in the planning stages. He was turned down by a local library group and is still looking for sponsors. Part of Longshore's plan is to replicate, in a larger form, the conversations De La Paz had with Godwin, to get young people together to share their thoughts about what they read without having to worry about grades.

"If we can provide them with the books, and from the kind of mystique and romanticism of a hero from Iraq, they might feel like it's OK to read and enjoy reading," Longshore said. "Armando's life would have a real meaning to the students because they would take part in something that was so important to him."

Godwin says he saw a future for De La Paz in literature, maybe ending up as a college English professor.

"I was pretty surprised when he joined the Army," Godwin said. "He said, 'It's what I want to do. I want to serve.' And as a teacher you just support your student, and we were always proud of him."

De La Paz joined the Army in June 2005, shortly after graduating from high school. His home base was Ft. Carson in Colorado, and he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

Shortly after his death, Arlington High's ROTC students held a flag-lowering ceremony in De La Paz's honor. His father, Armando De La Paz Sr., and his younger brother attended along with about 125 students, Godwin said.

De La Paz's father and mother, Elizabeth De La Paz, have declined to speak publicly until the Army investigation into their son's death is over. Longshore has yet to speak with the family but wants them to be a part of any reading program started to honor their son.

"I don't want to invade their privacy, and I've seen, from the things in the paper, that they're reluctant to go public, and I respect that," Longshore said. "But when they want to be involved, there is a place for them, and I think they should be a part of whatever we do."

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nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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