Remembering Reservist Robert Hernandez
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
More than half the service members who have died in Iraq were hit by roadside explosives. Among them is Army Reservist Robert Hernandez. He died during a combat mission when a bomb detonated near his Humvee. He was 47, a father and a long time Washington D.C. area police officer. NPR's Ben Bergman has this remembrance.
BEN BERGMAN reporting:
Robert Hernandez wasn't the type of guy you wanted to mess with. He was big and beefy. After he came home from work most days, he worked out in a garage he turn into a training room and a place to store his rows of karate trophies. His fiancé, Priscilla Godly(ph), plans to leave this room exactly as it is.
Ms. PRISCILLA GODLY: This is the punch bag always come in and kick it and hit it.
BERGMAN: The punching bag is in the shape of a human; Hernandez called him Paco. After delivering a few blows to Paco, he liked to watch movies, some cartoons but mostly…
Ms. GODLY: A scary movie. He have all scary movies.
BERGMAN: Jason X, Rise of the Undead, Seven Doors of Death, the scarier the better. You might think Hernandez got enough excitement outside the house on the job as a police officer. It was a job his fellow officers say he loved and excelled at. Prince George's County police officer Mark Gamble remembers that when they were on patrol Hernandez's fluency in Spanish came in handy.
Officer MARK GAMBLE: A lot of traffic stops that we'll make would sometimes be Hispanic and they sometimes didn't speak a lot of English. But as soon as Hernandez would get on the scene I could tell him what I wanted to relay to them, and he helps out greatly with translating what happened to them and we could look for the bad guys.
BERGMAN: It wasn't just bad guys Hernandez met on traffic stops; he also met his fiancé in the early '90's.
Ms. GODLY: He was police in D.C. and stopped me, you know. I don't remember what I did. He gave his business card and he take me for dinner that day. From that day we became very close friends. He always told me that he loved me from the first day he met me.
BERGMAN: They bought had kids from previous marriages and it took them more then a decade to get engaged. They were planning a wedding when Hernandez got the call to go Iraq last August. To keep in touch, they sat up a video conferencing system and ran up expensive phone bills.
Ms. GODLY: Every single day maybe he call me in the morning, he call me in the evening.
BERGMAN: One day, in late March, Hernandez called Godly, but she wasn't home. So he left a message.
Ms. GODLY: He say, I do my best, you know, but some days I don't want you to find out all the stress that I have here.
BERGMAN: It was the last time she heard her fiancé's voice. The message is still saved on her machine. Now, in her hallway, Godly and a friend, Wanda Pagan(ph), have set up a memorial to honor Hernandez.
Ms. WANDA PAGAN: This is his little history of him when he started in the Army. And then here was all the pictures he sent her in Iraq.
BERGMAN: Attached to poster boards next to a burning candle there are letters Hernandez sent from Iraq, newspapers clippings and cards from well-wishers. Among the people who have sent Godly cards is President Bush, but that card isn't on display.
Ms. GODLY: We threw it away.
BERGMAN: Godly once voted for President Bush, but she said seeing other people's loved ones and now hers killed in Iraq has made her feel differently about the war and about the president.
Ms. GODLY: He doesn't understand because he's not there, his family is not there; he don't care.
BERGMAN: Godly's friend, Pagan, says it's sad that the couple never got to start their married life.
Ms. PAGAN: Losing someone so young and too soon for the kind of love that they had, and that's what hurts the most. You don't find love like that everyday.
BERGMAN: Godly can only manage two or three hours of sleep a night. She says she used to feel sorry for others who lost family members in Iraq. Now, she suspects other probably feel the same way about her.
Ben Bergman NPR News.