Spc. Vilmar Galarza Hernandez specifically wanted to be in the infantry… (Associated Press )
In 2009, Vils Galarza's parents resisted when he told them that he wanted to join the Army after high school in Salinas.
They wanted him to go to college, and he already had acceptance letters in hand. If he had to join the military, they told him, couldn't he pick a trade that would provide him some modicum of safety — working as a truck driver, perhaps, or a mechanic? Galarza told them that not only would he enlist, but he wanted to be an infantryman — to experience the vaunted tradition of having his boots on the ground.
"He specifically wanted infantry," said his sister, Rubi Galarza. "That's just the kind of person he was. We couldn't talk him out of it."
On May 26, shortly after beginning a nine-month deployment, Spc. Vilmar Galarza Hernandez, known as "Vils," was on patrol and stepped on a roadside bomb in Zharay, Afghanistan, in Kandahar province. He never regained consciousness, according to his family, and died a short while later en route to a field hospital. He was 21.
Galarza was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. It was his second tour in Afghanistan; according to his family, he completed a six-month tour in 2010.
Galarza was born in Yuma, Ariz., and moved when he was 5 years old to Salinas, where his parents work in the region's farming fields.
"We don't live in the best neighborhood," said Rubi Galarza. "He wanted to be able to move my family out of that neighborhood."
As Vils and Rubi Galarza grew up, they lost a number of their friends to gang violence and to jail. Vils Galarza was determined to avoid that fate.
"I saw him move away from that, and I did the same," Rubi Galarza said in a telephone interview from Peru, where she is studying for the summer. "I always followed in his footsteps."
Because of her older brother's influence, Rubi Galarza said, she gained acceptance to UC Berkeley, where she will enter her fourth year this fall, studying biology with plans to go to medical school. Galarza is in Peru conducting research on medicinal plants.
"He was so proud of me," she said. "It's so sad that he won't be at my graduation."
Galarza graduated from Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas in 2008. He was married two months before he was killed.
He was buried with military honors at the Garden of Memories in Salinas. In a eulogy at his church funeral, Brig. Gen. Randal A. Dragon remembered Galarza as "a son, a husband, a brother, a soldier, a gentleman, a hero and a friend."
"He was a true American patriot and a man respected and endeared by all who had the privilege of walking beside him," Dragon said.
Capt. Brandon Wohlschlegel, Galarza's company commander, called him "the model soldier."
"Under some of the most difficult conditions I have ever seen, Spc. Galarza Hernandez was always doing the right thing," Wohlschlegel said. "He was a rock."
Galarza's awards and decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with campaign star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Ribbon, NATO Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge.
In addition to his sister, Galarza is survived by his wife, Margarita Contreras, of Michigan; parents, Pedro and Gregoria Galarza of Salinas; mother-in-law, Patricia Contreras of Michigan; and brother, Marvin Galarza of Salinas.