Tyler Holtz, who was 19 when he enlisted in the Army in 2007, had four deployments… (Army Special Operations…)
The words were a farewell from a son and a soldier:
I want to make myself perfectly clear about why I gave my life for this.
On his fourth deployment to Afghanistan over three years, Tyler Holtz wrote his family a letter. The 22-year-old sergeant in the Army's elite Ranger regiment gave it to a fellow Ranger and asked him to send it home if anything happened to him.
Don't make the mistake of thinking I joined the Army out of some misguided, short lived sense of patriotism. My sense of duty and place in the Army was something I couldn't get rid of. I had and have a deep [seated] feeling of pride and joy in my heart and in my soul when I was/am protecting someone. What I was most proud of and died protecting was you, those I loved, my country, and my God.
Holtz had always known what he wanted, those who knew him said.
After he graduated from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, college would have been within easy reach. But from the time he was a child growing up in Dana Point, Holtz had held tight to an unwavering idea of becoming a soldier, specifically a Ranger.
His first year at Mater Dei, Holtz joined the school's storied football program. It was an outlet for the craving he felt to be a part of something larger than himself. Although he didn't play much during games, Holtz became what his coach called "the team's quiet leader."
"He came to practice every day, pinned his ears back and worked. He made other players work hard just by his example. He made them want to get better," coach Bruce Rollinson said.
As graduation neared, Holtz's uncle, Mike Hafner, took him to talk to a neighbor who had served in the Marine Corps. For two hours, the man spoke candidly about the realities of war. Holtz listened. Afterward, he was as resolute as ever that a military career was what he wanted, his uncle said.
Holtz was 19 when he enlisted in 2007. After basic training at Ft. Benning, Ga., he completed a parachuting course he needed to have a shot at becoming a Ranger. He then made it through the regiment's grueling selection program — an eight-week course designed to weed out those unable to handle its physical and mental demands.
"He stood out right away," said Greg Hastings, who led the young man's platoon before leaving the Army last year.
Hastings recalled a training exercise with live ammunition a few weeks after Holtz arrived. New Rangers are expected to keep their heads down and follow the lead of veteran members, but Holtz didn't seem to know that or to care.
As his team made its way toward the target, Holtz took control, shouting instructions so loudly that a group of commanding officers watching from a distance could hear him over the gunfire. "He broke the mold," Hastings said.
When Holtz left for the first of his Afghanistan deployments, he did so as an anti-tank gunner. In battles, gunners are expected to position themselves in front of other soldiers to protect them with the large, powerful rifle they carry. It's a job that demands as much judgment as it does brawn.
"He very quickly had earned the trust of those he worked with," Hastings said. "We had absolute confidence in him."
Over the next few years, Holtz was promoted and received several commendations. But he told his family little about his accomplishments, including that he had been made a team leader, entrusted with the safety and command of four other Rangers. He also said little about the pitched gun battles, ambushes and other realities of soldiering in Afghanistan.
Instead, his uncle said, Holtz stuck with the lighter stuff. Phone calls and emails were filled with stories like the one when he and his team came upon a barn that had to be checked for enemy fighters. Holtz made his way into the darkened barn, turned on a headlamp and found himself staring into the eyes of a 500-pound bull.
In January, he reenlisted and again returned to Afghanistan.
I know why I was fighting. I was fighting so that you wouldn't have to deal with or die in another 9/11. I was fighting so that you and America would never have [to] know another war on our soil.
It wasn't the adventure or the rush of battle that drove Holtz, said Hastings, who stayed in touch with him after leaving the platoon.
"People join the Army for all kinds of different reasons. Some do it for a paycheck, some for the stability it offers, some need the discipline," Hastings said. "But there is a handful of guys who come to it with purely idealistic reasons — just true patriots. Tyler was in that camp."
On Sept. 24 in central Afghanistan's Wardak province, west of Kabul, Holtz's platoon was involved in an intense firefight. The Ranger was leading his team in an assault on an enemy position when he was struck by small-arms fire, the Army said.
He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Holtz's last letter was sent to his family by e-mail. His Ranger friend plans to deliver the original when he returns to the U.S.
I died happy. Maybe not peacefully, but happy, and with purpose. That's all I could have ever asked for.