West Point Mourns a Font Of Energy, Laid to Rest by War

Cadets from the U.S. Military Academy mourn 2nd Lt. Emily Perez after her burial at the academy in West Point, N.Y.
Cadets from the U.S. Military Academy mourn 2nd Lt. Emily Perez after her burial at the academy in West Point, N.Y. (By Tim Roske -- Associated Press)

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By Joshua Partlow and Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

WEST POINT, N.Y., Sept. 26 -- They remember Emily Perez in her many bursts of motion: the diminutive young woman calling out orders to the freshman cadets on the castled military campus of West Point.

They see her sprinting the third leg for Army's 400-meter relay team. Or in the school's gospel choir, filling her lungs and opening her mouth to sing.

Emily J.T. Perez, a determined 23-year-old from Prince George's County, rose to the top of her high school class and then became the first minority female command sergeant in the history of the U.S. Military Academy.

Now she has another distinction. The second lieutenant was buried Tuesday at the academy, the first female graduate of West Point to die in Iraq. Perez, a platoon leader, was killed while patrolling southern Iraq near Najaf on Sept. 12 when a roadside bomb exploded under her Humvee.

And at the service on the high bluffs along the Hudson River, her former fellow cadets, the younger women who looked up to Perez and now are preparing to follow her path, were still learning from her.

"The fact that she's died -- it makes what's going on in the Middle [East] . . . so much more real. I mean, here at West Point, it's kind of like Camelot, you know -- everything just seems to work," Sylvia Amegashie, 21, of Woodbridge, co-captain of West Point's track team, said as she stood on the cemetery grass, holding back tears. "What happened to her, being out there in Iraq, it's real. Her death really makes everything seem more like it's going to happen."

"For me, yeah, like, it's just an eye-opener," agreed Meghan Venable-Thomas, 21, a senior who also ran track and sang in the choir with Perez, who graduated last year. "She was like a little superwoman . . . so full of energy and life, and she was just willing to do anything."

Perez was born into a military family in Heidelberg, Germany, and moved to Fort Washington in 1998. A woman repeatedly described as focused, tenacious and passionate, she was an avid reader from a young age and eventually finished near the top of her class at Oxon Hill High School. From early on, she wanted to be a soldier, her friends recalled, and she became wing commander of Junior ROTC at Oxon Hill.

"She was the cream of the crop," said Nathaniel Laney, Perez's high school track coach and now assistant principal at Oxon Hill. "This wasn't some average Joe."

Her nickname was Kobe, family friend E. Faith Bell said, because everyone knew she could make the shots, in whatever she did.

While in high school, working with the District's Peace Baptist Church, Perez helped begin an HIV-AIDS ministry after family members contracted the virus.

One of her mentors, Roger Pollard, who worked with her when she volunteered with the Alexandria Red Cross HIV-AIDS peer education program, recalled her remarkable ability to stay focused -- always on time, always ready to work. She shared with other teenagers her stories about people close to her living with the depression and stigma of AIDS.


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