Friday, June 29, 2007

Henry Byrd remembered

Henry George Robert Byrd III wasn't just a fun-loving young man who always had a smile on his face and whose heart was so big he always worried about other people before himself.

He was also a serious young man who had a dream of serving his country, driving tanks and fighting for the freedom of others.

Byrd's dream came true in January 2006 when he joined the United States Army and trained to drive military tanks while stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. After he had served more than a year in the Army, Byrd's unit was deployed to Iraq in April of this year. His family said he was to be there for a little more than a year.

Less than two months after being deployed to the war zone, Byrd suffered a fatal attack of heatstroke while on duty, ending a dream, and creating a void in the lives of his family and friends back home. He died in a German hospital on Sunday, June 24.

"If any kid went straight to heaven, this kid did," said Frank Ortega, Byrd's uncle. "He was a good kid with a pure heart."

The news of Byrd's death shocked his family and friends. It wasn't so much that they weren't aware of the danger he was in, but it was more the fact that it wasn't enemy fire that killed him.

"To me, he's a hero," Ortega said. "You know that saying, the good die young? It's true for him."

The 2004 Belen High School graduate joined the JROTC during his freshman year. Byrd's stepmother, Margaret Baca, said he had wanted to be in the military since he was a little boy. His father, Henry J. Byrd II of Veguita, was a Vietnam veteran, and Byrd's grandfather was a Marine who served during World War II.

Belen High School JROTC Chief Oscar Magallanes said Byrd was always someone you could count on, going above and beyond what was asked of him.

"He was a great kid," Magallanes said. "I was shocked and speechless (when I heard the news). You don't expect something like that to happen."

Magallanes remembers Byrd always smiling and constantly looking out for others. One image that keeps replaying over and over in his head is the time when Byrd was standing in the ranks and he was smiling.

"I said, 'Henry, stand at attention,'" Magallanes said. "That's what keeps hitting me over and over.

"He cared about people, and when you lose one like Henry, it's hard — it's real hard. He was a wonderful student and a wonderful cadet."

Richard Long, owner of Belen Goju Ryu Karate, knew Byrd since he was about 5 years old when he became a student of Long's.

"Henry was a good boy," said Long, whose daughter, Tamara was killed in March 2003, when her helicopter crashed while serving in Afghanistan. "He was happy-go-lucky and always had a goofy grin on his face. I was real proud he graduated from high school and joined the military. He was a hard-working kid."

Long went on to say that Byrd had earned a brown belt with three black stripes while attending Goju Ryu Karate.

Byrd was also a volunteer member of the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department before joining the service, and Fire Chief L.E. Rubin said he saw Byrd before he left for Iraq.

"He stopped by my station just to say hi and to say thanks for what we did for him," Rubin said. "I'm very sad to hear that (he died)."

Byrd also had a very close relationship with Rick and Belinda Gonzalez and their children. They met him through their daughter, Maranda, who knew Byrd from JROTC.

"He's a really great person with a big heart," Rick Gonzalez said. "He was always happy. He considered my wife and me like a mom and dad. It's a great loss."

As tears filled her eyes, Maranda spoke about how caring Byrd was. "He was like my protector almost. He always called me his little brat. In his letters, it was 'hey, brat.' Nobody expected him to die. He was like my big brother."

Belinda Gonzalez said she talked with Byrd on Father's Day and he said he was fine, but that he wanted to come home.

"He was a really big part of our lives," she said.

And while the family kept in touch through phone calls and letters, the news of Byrd's death was devastating.

As Belinda took out the most recent letters Byrd wrote to them, tears welled up in her eyes as she read parts of the letters.

"He writes "Don't worry mom, I'm keeping my head down. I feel like I have a guardian angel on my shoulder. I worry about my people at home. I'll be home sooner than you think. I'll say a prayer and you say one too. Send my love to everyone.'"

"He was an awesome kid," Belinda said.

While family and friends are deeply saddened by their loss, their memories of a young boy who loved hunting, camping, fishing, swimming and riding horses bring smiles to their face.

"He was just happy all the time," Louise Ortega, Byrd's aunt, said thoughtfully. "He was the most bubbly person you could ever meet."

She recalled the time she saw Henry wearing two cell phones on his belt. Louise said with a laugh that "Henry said if he got two phones it was cheaper than one. Then he wouldn't miss a call."

And looking back, Frank remembers the good times at his house fixing pancakes and popcorn from scratch for his nephews.

"It was my specialty," Frank smiled. "He liked my pancakes."

"To me, God needed more angels, and he called him," Frank said. "To me he's a hero."

From the News Bulletin

Related Link:
Henry G. Byrd III 'died June 24 in Landstuhl Germany, from a non-combat related illness sustained June 18 while in Iraq'