Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hector Leija laid to rest

RAYMONDVILLE — Staff Sgt. Hector Leija was buried Monday afternoon in the fertile soil that has sustained this farming community for generations.

Leija, 27, like many before, left his hometown to seek opportunities not often found in this part of the Rio Grande Valley.

"He loved being in the service," said Kevin Pines, a former high school teammate as he stood outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church after Leija's funeral. "He didn't want to stay in the Valley. He wanted to say he had done something with his life."

Leija's close-knit family, including some who have known the strenuous toil of migrant farm work, wanted to mourn the soldier's death in private.

But the family was drawn into a public controversy over coverage of the war when the New York Times published graphic images of the soldier's death in Baghdad a week ago.

The newspaper issued an apology to the family, whose members have said they were deeply upset by the images and details in the Times.

But the family's desire for privacy didn't hide the pride they felt for the young man who joined the Army when he was 17 and served for a decade until his death in combat Jan. 24.

The 1997 Raymondville High School yearbook lists Leija's many accomplishments. He served in the National Honor Society, lettered in football for four years and took part in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Bible Club and FFA.

Almost an hour's drive north of the Texas-Mexico border, the town has been bypassed by the economic and population growth found in other border communities. The largest employers are a Wal-Mart, a supermarket, and a trio of jails and detention centers east of town.

"It's a town that was very dependent on agriculture for a long time, whether you were the landowner or worked the land or drove the trucks that hauled the crops," said Mayor Orlando Correa.

By all accounts, the soldier's parents, Domingo and Manuela Leija, tried to make that trip easier by instilling discipline and respect in Leija and his three brothers.

Several educators said Leija could have gone to college but joined the Army instead to serve his country.

Others wonder if the financial strain of a college education helped steer Leija to a career in the military.

"It was just a choice, and one that happened very frequently in Raymondville," said Jim Scarborough, a former counselor at the school. "It's not a wealthy community. A lot of kids, even though they're accepted at a university, may not feel they would be able to maintain the financial load."

But the counselor said, "With Hector it was a desire to serve. I know that sounds corny, but he really wanted to be in the Army."

From the Express News

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Hector Leija remembered

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Hector Leija slain by sniper