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Army Pfc. Justin Casillas, 19, Dunnigan; killed while carrying wounded soldier

The Pierce High graduate had talked about joining the military since he was a young child. He said his years playing football prepared him mentally for armed service.

November 08, 2009|Howard Blume

Memories of Justin Casillas have taken on new meaning lately for those who knew him: The time he took responsibility for a broken locker and the way he once fearlessly climbed into the rafters to help build a roof. And that night in high school when he nearly got the football across the goal line despite an injury.

Army Pfc. Casillas, 19, displayed the traits suggested by those earlier experiences in his final minutes. He died July 4 while carrying a wounded soldier after a surprise attack on a combat outpost in the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. Casillas was based in Ft. Richardson, Alaska, and served with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.

Casillas grew up in the tiny town of Dunnigan in the farm country north of Sacramento. An active, sometimes mischievous child, he talked about wanting to join the military "as far back as I can remember, since he was 3 or 4," said his mother, Donna Casillas.

At Pierce High in nearby Arbuckle, Casillas was a well-liked "C" student who got in one or two fights and occasionally butted heads with authority figures, his friends and family said. But he always showed up, and did the academic and athletic work needed to play sports and keep his dream of military service alive.

Assistant Principal Don Friel remembered Casillas, as a sophomore, taking responsibility for a broken locker that resulted from a group of boys horsing around.

"He could've lied to me like most high school boys would do," Friel said. Instead, Casillas acknowledged his role and paid about $30 for the repair, an amount "that wasn't something he could just pull out of his pocket," Friel said.

Casillas later began working on the assistant principal's family ranch, earning $10 an hour for football camp and spending money.

When the farm's repair shop needed a new roof, "Justin jumped right up on the rafters and was doing it when nobody else wanted to get up there," Friel said. "If he liked you and you liked him, he would do anything for you."

In football, Casillas played offensive guard and defensive end, never getting past 5-foot-8 and about 160 pounds, said Coach Roy Perkins. He played every down on offense and defense, blocking much bigger players.

"Occasionally, you get a small kid like Justin who gets everything he can out of the game because his effort is there," Perkins said. "If you had 20 of them, you'd be very successful. He understood the concept of the team."

With the Pierce football team down to 19 players his senior year, Casillas taped up a badly sprained ankle as his outnumbered, undersized Bears prepared to play the rival Clear Lake Cardinals. During the game, Pierce trailed by a touchdown with 30 seconds remaining and the Bears receiving. Clear Lake's kicker shanked the ball, which squibbed directly to Casillas, waiting at his own 40 yard line to block for the runner. He picked up the ball and was off, even though limping. The Cardinals caught up at the 15 yard line; it took three of them to pull him down at the 5 -- a tackle that injured his other ankle, his coach said.

"Whenever the opportunity was there, he was going to seize it," Perkins said. "He knew what to do. That's pretty much how he lived his life."

Casillas overcame his father's objections to join the military, extending a family tradition dating back to the Civil War, his mother said.

After Casillas' March deployment to Afghanistan, "I knew they were in a dangerous place," she said. "He told me there had been three attempts to ambush their patrols." On Independence Day, his camp came under direct assault. Soldiers filmed part of the fighting, including footage of Casillas firing a mortar as part of a two-person team.

There's no film of what happened next, when shrapnel from enemy ordnance severed a leg artery of Casillas' gunmate, Pfc. Aaron E. Fairbairn, 20, of Aberdeen, Wash. Casillas, trained in first aid, knew that Fairbairn, a close friend from boot camp, needed immediate treatment.

"Pfc. Casillas, without hesitation, actually pushed his . . . platoon sergeant and mortar crew chief aside," said 1st Lt. Mike Bassi, in an interview filmed by troops.

Casillas "ran into incoming fire three different times: one to get a fire mission in order for us to return fire effectively on the enemy. The second time to retrieve Pfc. Fairbairn, who was injured in the mortar pit, and the third time to take him" for medical treatment, the lieutenant said.

But as Casillas carried his taller, wounded friend through enemy fire, a mortar round landed 5 feet away, killing them both.

A few months before his death, Casillas had sent an e-mail to Coach Perkins, thanking him for the training he gave him.

"A lot of that mental toughness I have . . . was all thanks to my . . . parents and teachers . . . but most of all coaches," the young man wrote.

"My God, he's over there risking his life for me, for us," Perkins said. "I was thinking, 'I should be thanking you.' "

In addition to his mother, Casillas is survived by his father, Charles Casillas, his stepfather, Joe Casillas, and younger sisters Victoria and Ashleigh.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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