LIANE HANSEN, host:
The soldiers of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade have served in Iraq for nearly a year. They expected to be coming home soon, but last Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the brigade to remain in Iraq for up to four more months. The brigade is based in Fairbanks, Alaska, where its absence is acutely felt by many families that have moved there from homes in the Lower 48 states.
For the family of 28-year-old Sergeant Irving Hernandez, the waiting ended tragically earlier this month. Sergeant Hernandez was killed by a sniper in Mosul on July 12th.
From member station KUAC in Fairbanks, Libby Casey reports.
LIBBY CASEY reporting:
Irving and Susan Hernandez were high school sweethearts in New York City. They never imagined ending up in Alaska 13 years later, but when their daughter was born, Irving enlisted in the Army. Soon after, they had a son. Irving wanted to give the family a better life and get them out of the city. The Army sent them to Hawaii, back to New York state, and finally to Fairbanks.
Susan says her husband was proud of his job but hated that the deployment to Iraq took him away from his children.
Ms. SUSAN HERNANDEZ (Widow): Everybody questions himself, would I be better being out the military? And he knew if he got out he would not be able to take care of me and the kids the way he wanted to. He made that sacrifice. He made that sacrifice to make sure that me and my children had everything.
CASEY: Instead of being able to welcome her husband home after the long year apart, Susan spent last Tuesday night watching over his casket at a Fairbanks funeral parlor. By her side were the couple's best friends, Staff Sergeant Tracy Ashley and his wife. When they met eight years ago, Ashley says he and Irving were total opposites.
Staff Sergeant TRACY ASHLEY (U.S. Army, Alaska): You know, he's proud to be Puerto Rican, and then I was proud he turned redneck, so I called him redneck Puerto Rican.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CASEY: Ashley, a native Texan, taught his younger friend to fix cars and fish.
Staff Sergeant ASHLEY: When I first met Irving, he was strictly a New Yorker. He dressed New York, you know. He had never been hunting. I don't know if he has ever been fishing. And it's just like he became more country, hunting, fishing all the time, that's what he was becoming, the outdoors type person.
CASEY: Ashley says he felt like a father figure to Irving.
Staff Sergeant ASHLEY: His father died when he was young. I grew up without a father. Them kids are going to be like mine. And Irving would have done the same. And I done told both the kids anything that they need, even if it's just to talk about their daddy, just to call me.
(Soundbite of sniffling)
CASEY: Ashley has started a memory book with eight-year-old Stacey about her father. But Susan says six-year-old son Christian is having a hard time understanding what's happened.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: I know he knows something is wrong, but he's still too young. All I can do is just talk to him and try to explain to him. My daughter is a little older and for a eight-year-old child she is very strong. She is strong. That was his princess, his little girl.
CASEY: Susan says since Irving's death, she's been silently telling her husband that she'll never let him be forgotten. As she prepared for his casket to be closed, Susan said she didn't want to let him go.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: I wish it was easy to just get him back as quickly as he was taken away. Hard to say that I know today will be my last day of ever seeing his face in person.
CASEY: Sergeant Irving Hernandez was buried in Fairbanks with military honors on July 26th. His wife says he would have loved the cemetery's perfect grass and endless sky, the dream of a kid who left the city to give his family a better life. For now, at least, Susan plans to raise Stacey and Christian in Alaska.
For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey in Fairbanks.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.