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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Cpl. Brett Land, 24, Wasco; killed by roadside bomb in Afghanistan

The aspiring wrestling coach was known as a good-natured perfectionist, a loving son, a kindred-spirit husband and a new father who longed to dote on the newborn daughter he would never meet.

January 16, 2011|By Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times

From his time as a grade-school grappler to the day he died in Afghanistan, Brett Land always was the little guy with the big heart.

At age 9, when he weighed all of 50 pounds and was wrestling for a midget-class title at the regional championships, he marched to the mat, did two back flips and pounded his chest. The idea was "to get warmed up and make the other people afraid of me," he told a Fresno newspaper reporter at the time.

Land's trademark flips were part of a competitive streak he carried with him to Bakersfield High School, where he was a standout wrestler on the 2004 state championship team.

He went on to join the Army and was an infantryman when he was killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 30 in the Zhari district of southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, on the Pakistani border. At the time, he held the rank of specialist and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Ft. Campbell, Ky.

Those who knew Land said there was much more to the 24-year-old resident of Wasco, northwest of Bakersfield, than his relentless drive and passion for wrestling.

By various accounts, he was a good-natured perfectionist, a saxophonist, an aspiring coach, a loving son, a kindred-spirit husband and a new father who longed to dote on Rileigh, the newborn daughter he would never meet.

He died two weeks after her birth, and two weeks before he was due to arrive home on leave.

"I loved him because he wasn't afraid to be himself with me," said his wife, Sarah, 23. "He didn't really want people to know it, but he was actually very sweet. He had a really good heart."

Land grew up in Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley, where his parents, Kenny and Gretchen Land, devoted themselves to his wrestling, taking him to tournaments around the country. From a young age, he was as sociable as he was competitive, said his mother, who has since divorced from his father.

"He would walk around the arena just talking with coaches and parents," she said. "We would hardly see him all day because he would be socializing with people from all over. He did not know a stranger. I think we loved him so much [that] he really expected everyone else would love him too. And I think they did."

She recalled one wrestling camp when he was about 7, when a coach asked the group to share a couple of jokes. When one of the older boys got a good laugh, her son took his cue.

"Brett raises his hand and stands in front of 100 high school kids and tells a joke all wrong, but the way he told it was the funniest thing I've ever seen," his mother said. "We were all laughing so hard it hurt. And he loved it."

Land, who was about 5 feet 5 and 140 pounds, went on to win three sectional titles at Bakersfield High School, where he twice placed in the state championships. He later joined the wrestling team at West Hills College in Lemoore, and also tried his hand at mixed martial arts fighting.

"He was always a guy who competed in everything, and I always looked up to him," said Elijah Nacita, a fellow wrestler and friend since boyhood. "Everyone knew Brett as the little guy who ripped everyone else up."

Nacita said Land "was always searching for something new" and seemed to have found his niche: "When I heard he got into the military, I thought, 'That's great, that's something he was destined to do.' "

Land joined the Army in 2008 and the next year, while stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., he met Sarah Mejia, who was from Southern California. They had known each other only a few days when he proposed to her on the Fourth of July. Two weeks later, they were married.

"He was everything that I wanted and I guess I was everything that he wanted," she said. "The things he lacked, I had, and the things I lacked, he had."

Land later was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell.

"Brett was a great soldier," said Nick Alberson, who served with him there in 2009. "He was a strong person, physically and mentally. He loved his job and had a great time working with his peers and serving his nation."

Just before Land shipped out in June for Afghanistan, his wife moved back to her mother's home in Hesperia. Land's daughter was born Oct. 15, days before he was killed.

Land, who was posthumously promoted to corporal, was buried Nov. 10 with full military honors at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Porterville. In addition to his wife, daughter and parents, he is survived by two brothers, Rocky and Ryan; and a sister, Julie.

Michelle Pengilly, a family friend and principal of Burton Middle School, where Land was a straight-A student, said he had told her in his last e-mail that he was happy in the Army.

"He said he'd made the right decision and felt he was really doing what he was supposed to do," she said.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

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