RAYMONDVILLE — With her pride beaming over her pain, Araceli Saldivar gazed as veterans unveiled Willacy County’s historic war monument carved with Army Spc. Jessie Davila’s name, 15 years after her brother became the county’s first soldier killed in Iraq.

On Friday, veterans with Raymondville’s American Legion Post 390 honored Davila along with hometown heroes Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija and Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Aguirre during a ceremony before the tall granite monument standing at the steps of the 99-year-old county courthouse.

“Everything was so beautiful,” Saldivar, a homemaker, said after the ceremony. “It meant so much to me. The most important part is they remember the sacrifice he made for the country. He did exactly what he wanted to do in life — serve his country. I appreciate everything he did for us — the sacrifice. I’m sad, because he’s gone, but I’m proud of him.”

Veterans’ dream

For about 10 years, veterans here dreamed of carving the names the three Willacy County soldiers killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Then in August 2019, county commissioners granted their request to inscribe the soldiers’ names into the monument that had honored 46 local heroes killed in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam since its unveiling during a Memorial Day ceremony in 1995.

But the coronavirus pandemic’s safety restrictions put the ceremony on hold.

“We have never forgotten these young men who were killed in action,” George Solis, the local American Legion post’s commander, said after the ceremony.

“These kids had all kinds of metals of valor — they are heroes,” he said. “We cannot remain silent. We have to speak out loud and never forget those individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice to allow us to be free.”

On Friday, veterans from across the Rio Grande Valley joined America’s Last Patrol to honor the three fallen heroes along with their Gold Star families.

“This is about the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made,” former longtime Sheriff Larry Spence, the American Legion post’s chaplain, said after the ceremony. “The names unveiled, etched in stone, have been etched in our hearts since they came home. The families have been waiting so long. It’s almost like closure. The names are now there.”

Army Spc. Jessie Davila

For the county’s Gold Star families, the ceremony flooded them with memories filled with pride and pain as they honored the hometown boys who grew up to become heroes.

Since he was a boy, Davila dream of becoming a Marine, Thelma Herrera, his aunt, said.

When he was about 10, he and his cousin Robert Muñoz pledged they’d join the Marines as soon as they could, she said.

On Feb. 20, 2006, Davila, 29, a former Marine serving with an Army National Guard unit from Greensburg, Kan., was on his second tour of duty when he was killed after a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad.

“I feel very proud of my nephew because he had already served and he finished him term and he still signed up again in the reserves,” Herrera, an emergency medical technician with the county’s ambulance service, said.

“I am very proud of him. I was very sad about it, very tearful, when he signed up again, but my son talked to me and told me that that’s what he wanted to do since he was little. When he was little, about 10 years old, he and my son made a commitment to join the Marines when they were old enough. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija

Before graduating as an honor student from Raymondville High School in 1997, Hector Leija was 17 when he turned down college scholarships as he planned to join the Army.

On Jan. 24, 2007, he was killed after a bullet struck his head as he searched for weapons in a Baghdad kitchen.

“I’m proud of it. It’s an honor they did it,” Manuela Leija, his mother, said, referring to the monument bearing her son’s name. “As much as I’ve been going through losing him, I’m still pulling through. There’s nothing that’s going to heal the wound in my heart losing him.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Aguirre

When he was a little boy, Anthony Aguirre wanted a black bomber jacket flashing an American flag and glistening wings.

So his father Arturo Aguirre bought it at the store.

On a table in his home on East Gem Avenue, he’s kept a little portrait showing his son beaming as he shows off his new jacket.

After he graduated from high school, Anthony Aguirre joined the Marines.

On Feb. 26, 2007, he was 20 when he was killed while on foot patrol after a roadside bomb exploded in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

“I can still see him at the house,” Arturo Aguirre, a retired construction worker, said. “I can still feel him at the house. I’m very proud. I’m very proud they still remember him. I don’t think there are words to describe that I miss him a lot.”

In Channelview, where Anthony Aguirre lived much of his life with his mother, the school district opened Lance Cpl. Anthony Aguirre Junior High School in 2011.

Heroes’ legacy

For decades, family members have gathered at the steps of the Willacy County Courthouse to honor their loved ones at the foot of the granite monument now bearing 49 names under the epitaph, “In memory of those who gave their all.”

“I’m sure the families feel honored,” Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said after the ceremony. “Now they’re recognized on the headstone that goes back 100 years to World War 1. There are a lot of memories in that headstone.”

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