Saturday, March 24, 2007

Steven Chavez remembered

A Hondo Valley man was killed on Wednesday in Iraq, a week before he was scheduled to come home.

The Department of Defense confirmed Friday that Marine Lance Cpl. Steven M. Chavez, 20, died from a non-hostile incident in Al Anbar, the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab province west of Baghdad.

Funeral arrangements are still pending for Chavez, who joined the Marines soon after graduating from Hondo High School in 2005 and is the 31st New Mexican to be killed in the Iraq War. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Chavez is survived by his parents, Eddie and Novelda Chavez; his sister, Jackie, 22; and a brother, James, 11.

Eddie Chavez said his son, who was most recently working as a minesweeper, had his tour extended so his unit could debrief others on areas where insurgents had planted improvised explosive devices.

Before his last planned mission, he made an early morning call home to his family to tell them he loved them and make sure everything was set for him to come home and go fishing.

“‘Well, Pops, I’m going on my last mission in a couple hours. Is my fishing rod all ready?’” Eddie Chavez said his son asked. He told his son he would dust it off, oil the reel and put some new line on it so that when he came home, they could grab their tackle box and go.

But his dad had a strange premonition from the call, placed just 15 hours before his son died. The day before, five Marines in Chavez’ platoon had been killed in a mortar attack in the place where he was headed.

“I had a real strange vibe on his phone call. After we talked and kidded around, he said, ‘Do you ever get knots in your stomach?’” Eddie Chavez recalled. He told his son he did, all the time. “‘I’m just nervous about this mission,’” Steven Chavez said. “‘Something about it, I’m just not right.’ For some reason I felt real nervous about that.”

Steven’s mother, Novelda, and Jackie, Steven’s sister, felt the same way. Jackie called her father at work, Eddie Chavez said.

“She said, ‘Did you hear something different with Steven’s voice?’”

At about 8:20 that evening, the Marines showed up at the family’s doorstep.

“The whole time, I was dreading that,” said Eddie Chavez, his voice cracking at the memory. “Because I know they don’t come to visit. I heard the knock on the door, and I said, ‘Hell no. Hell no.’”

Serving in the military had been a plan years in the making for Steven Chavez, and the decision was cemented by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

That day, the high schooler was showing dairy heifers with the FFA in Albuquerque on 9/11, his dad recalls.

“He felt like he needed to be a part of what they were doing to get this resolved. He always told me, ‘Dad ... I don’t ever want this to happen again. I want my family and friends to be safe.”

“From that day on he got really serious about joining up,” Eddie Chavez said, remembering how his son devoured newspaper reports about the war as it progressed.

Steven Chavez planned to follow in the footsteps of an uncle and a cousin by joining the elite light infantry Army Rangers, but his scores weren’t quite high enough, his dad said. Retaking the tests would have taken several months, and he was eager to go, changing his plans to help out with the shortage of Marines.

His coach and FFA advisor, Brandon Devine, recalled how Steven joined the Delayed Entry program in his senior year of high school in plans to enlist.

Devine remembers how upset and concerned the usually fun-loving boy was on Sept. 11, 2001, saying the day was “an eye-opener” for him.

“I’ve always been really proud of him,” Devine said. “No matter what goal he set for himself, he wanted to be the best at it.”

That was true in his guitar studies, in his welding projects, and on the field, where Steven was chosen as an All-South All Star, a state linebacker and an All-District linebacker and running back, Devine said.

“He wasn’t a big kid, or even extremely athletic, but he worked hard at it and was one of the best,” Devine said. “He always kept his team going and worried about his teammates and his friends. He tried his best to take care of them.”

Steven even made a point to attend the first football game of the season before going overseas, Devine said, on the very field he’s now hoping the team can get dedicated to the young Marine. In September, Steven left for Kuwait before traveling to a base in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province.

“He felt like he was going there to help our country and to help his community here and his family here, to try and protect us from a terrorist attack,” Devine said.

Devine says the memories are too numerous to count.

“I hauled this kid for five years through FFA and football activities and just year-round. I was with him in the summertime, helping him with projects, I took him all over the state of New Mexico,” Devine said. “Steven always kind of considered himself like an outsider kid, but in all actuality, he wasn’t. He was so very easygoing ... he never went anywhere without making a friend.”

His father also said that was true.

“If ... 99 percent of our kids were like Steven, this world would be a lot better place. He’d make friends with a scorpion,” Eddie Chavez said.

And as a Marine, he had already proved his mettle as a hero in Iraq, his dad said. One day, on point on a reconnaissance mission, a sniper shot a friend of his in the jugular. Steven dragged him out of the street and plugged his wound, saving his life, his dad said.

There were other stories that went untold.

“It’s hell over there. When Steven called me, there were things he didn’t want to tell his mom,” Eddie Chavez said.

Eddie Chavez is holding tight to the memory of his son’s smile these days, he said. It was the most beautiful smile, he said, one that could capture anyone’s heart.

It was a smile that hid his devotion to his family, those who knew him say. As a little boy, he was fascinated by his dad’s job as a combat engineer for 12 years in the Army.

“He was always curious,” his dad said. “Every day he would look at my pictures and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’”

As a teenager, he was devastated after his grandfather and mentor lost a leg in an accident, offering to move in with him to take care of him.

And as a grown man, he was a friend. His uncle, Danny Sanchez, who baptized him, said he would miss his hunting partner.

“I helped him get his first bull elk,” Sanchez said. “He did a lot of wild things, but never did get in trouble. He’s going to be missed around here.”

His cousin and guitar teacher, Yvonne Sanchez, who teaches second grade, recalled how Steven spent his leave time making a visit to her students to answer questions and play the guitar for them.

“He was an instant celebrity. The kids just loved him. They were so excited,” she said. “One of the kids asked him how did he get his shoes so shiny?”

The subsequent letters and packages from area students touched him deeply, she said.

“‘Now I know everybody loves me,’” she remembers he said. “People who didn’t even know him from my husband’s job site were sending things. They never knew Steven, but they felt that they did. He was our hero. He went doing what he wanted to do for our country.”

After he left, Yvonne Sanchez spearheaded a care-package drive and Veteran’s Day program for Chavez and his fellow Marines. Steven, a budding songwriter, wrote a song and dictated a letter for the event.

Steven’s letter thanked the community for its support and the precious letters that kept him connected with his home. He wrote about the lonely nights away from home, wondering what his mother was cooking for supper and dreaming of her tortillas.

“Yes, I’m scared,” Steven wrote. “Nothing is scarier than the uncertainty ... but (God) will calm my fears and give us the strength to do the job we have been called to do.

Signing it “Your U.S. Marine,” he closed by saying how proud he was to protect and serve.

“I wouldn’t change one thing about my life,” he wrote. “I’ve never been more proud of the choices I’ve made in my life than the day I graduated from basic training.”

From the Record

Related Link:
Steven M. Chavez dies in 'non-combat-related incident'