The question everyone seems to be asking is, Why Emily? U.S. Army 2nd Lieut. Emily Perez, 23, was buried last week at West Point, on a high bluff over the Hudson River, alongside two centuries of fallen graduates from the U.S. Military Academy. Hers was the first combat death in the 2005 graduating class--called the class of 9/11 because they arrived on campus just two weeks before the terrorist attacks. She was also the first female West Point graduate to be killed in Iraq.
She died an ordinary death, at least by today's standards in Iraq: a roadside bomb exploded as she led her platoon in a convoy south of Baghdad on Sept. 12. But what makes this death so difficult to understand even against Iraq's constant churn of violence is just how extraordinary this particular soldier was.
Even at a school of overachievers, Perez stood out. She held the second highest rank in her senior class and as brigade command sergeant major was the highest-ranking minority woman in the history of West Point. She set school records as a sprinter on the track team, led the school's gospel choir, tutored a number of other students and even helped start a dance squad to cheer on the football and basketball teams. Professors wanted her to be in their classes; soldiers wanted her to lead their cadets; underclassmen wanted to absorb a little bit of the drive that made Perez push herself and still manage to serve others, from starting an AIDS ministry at her hometown church as a teenager to donating bone marrow to a stranger just before she headed to Iraq.
Yolanda Ramirez-Raphael, her roommate at West Point, says that Perez's accomplishments in her short life stemmed from an unwavering self-confidence. "She didn't worry about somebody liking her or not," says Ramirez-Raphael. At male-dominated West Point, she says, "women will sometimes try to change their leadership style, but not Emily. She always got right to the point."
IEDs have killed nearly 1,000 American soldiers in Iraq, and they continue to be the deadliest threat to U.S. troops despite a multibillion-dollar campaign to neutralize them. More than any other element in Iraq, roadside bombs have spread the dangers of war evenly from frontline soldiers to support personnel. Perez, who was a Medical Service Corps officer, had survived several convoy attacks before the one that killed her, according to Ramirez-Raphael. After one of those, a mutual friend from West Point happened to be in the quick-reaction force that arrived on the scene. "He told me that Emily held her own [in securing the location]," says Ramirez-Raphael. Perez, she says, had always known how to fight.