DANIEL REYES 1983-2007
'Rising star ... dedicated to his duty'

By Steve Liewer

September 1, 2007

Two-year-old Daniel Reyes wriggled playfully, a chubby-cheeked smile lighting up his face.

“Daniel, dónde está papá?” his mother, Rebekah Reyes, asked softly. Where's daddy?

Suddenly quiet, the toddler pointed to the sky.

The boy's father, Army Spc. Daniel Reyes, 24, died July 31 when a mortar slammed into his barracks at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, 25 miles south of Baghdad.

“He only had two months to go,” said his older brother, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Antonio Rodriquez, 32. “It was on his day off, and he was supposed to be relaxing inside the base.”

One other member of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment died in the attack, said Capt. Dustin Potter, Daniel's company commander.

“He was very dedicated to his duty,” Potter said of Daniel, who lived in Lemon Grove and in Tijuana. “I have no doubt that he was a fast-rising star in the Army.”

Daniel grew up in San Jose, the third of four children in a family led by a single mother. He was a jokester who made friends easily.

“You could drop him in the middle of nowhere, and in five minutes he'd have a whole gang of friends,” Antonio recalled.

The whole family was close-knit, but none more tightly than Daniel and his younger brother, Roberto Esparza.

“They were best friends,” said Rosalia Hernandez, the boys' mother. “(Daniel) was always protecting his little brother.”

Rosalia moved with the two boys to Tijuana in 2001, but she soon returned to San Jose to take care of a grandson. Daniel and Roberto stayed in Tijuana for a while, then went to live with Antonio in Lemon Grove after he was transferred to the San Diego region from Japan.

Still inseparable, the two younger brothers decided to follow Antonio into the military.

“Daniel looked up to his older brother, and Roberto looked up to Daniel,” said Rebekah, 23, who met the pair in Tijuana.

Daniel enlisted in the Army so he could join an airborne unit and jump out of airplanes. He married Rebekah in June 2005, four days before heading off to boot camp.

Roberto planned to follow him the next year, after he passed a mathematics test to meet Army standards. But in February 2006, on the morning of his 21st birthday, a car struck and killed Roberto as he rode his bicycle to a tutoring center near his home in Lemon Grove.

After Roberto's burial in San Jose, Daniel extracted a promise from his mother.

“He said, 'Mom, if anything happens to me, make sure I'm buried with my brother,' ” Rosalia recalled.

Daniel loved military life. He planned to try out for the elite Army Rangers after his unit returned from Iraq, where he manned a machine gun turret on a Humvee.

“He would have completed Ranger school, and he would have lived his dream,” said Staff Sgt. Derek Stivers, Daniel's section sergeant, in a tribute delivered at his memorial service in Iraq.

But Daniel paid the price of separation from his son and wife, who remained in Tijuana to be near her family.

Rebekah, who is majoring in criminal justice at San Diego State, calculated that in 25 months of married life, they had spent less than three months together.

Daniel tried to make up for his absence with frequent phone calls from Iraq. Rebekah thought it strange when she didn't hear from him for a few days early this month.

Then she got a call from her mother-in-law with the news that still doesn't seem quite real.

“It's hard for me to believe it, because I didn't see his body,” Rebekah said.

This week, she received a package from the Army with Daniel's medals and a few other possessions. She wears his dog tags around her neck. His name is tattooed on her back.

The strongest reminder of her husband, though, is the bubbly little boy that Daniel's family says looks and acts just like his dad at that age.

Daniel's surviving brother, Antonio, is now stationed in Naples, Italy. He is burdened with the knowledge that both his brothers died trying to follow in his footsteps. He too served in Iraq – for a time, at the same base where Daniel died.

“If I'd chosen a different career path, maybe they'd still be here,” Antonio said.

He expects to be sent to Iraq again, but that doesn't bother him.

“I'd like to go over there,” he said, “and finish the job my brothers started.”

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632; steve.liewer@uniontrib.com