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.
"She was sensitive to the suffering of others" but tough-minded, Pollard said. "I clearly remember thinking that she would definitely be the first female president of this country."
After graduating from West Point, she was assigned to the Army's 204th Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division and deployed to Iraq in December. Before she left, she spoke with Laney, her high school track coach. He gave her a journal to write everything down when she wanted to clear her head.
"She was like, 'I'll be okay. Don't worry about me.' That was just the confidence she had in herself," he said.
Her godfather, the pastor of Peace Baptist Church, remembered that same time in Perez's life.
"She was resilient. Her spirit was calm. She was resolute. She believed . . . the real tragedy is to not live while you are alive," said the Rev. Michael Bell, Faith Bell's husband.
She was the 64th female member of the U.S. military to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and the 40th West Point graduate killed since Sept. 11, 2001. Another female West Point graduate, Laura M. Walker of the Class of 2003, was killed in Afghanistan last year.
Her family chose to hold the funeral at West Point because of Perez's reverence for the institution that challenged her physically and mentally, Michael Bell said.
At the cemetery, in a quiet corner of campus beneath Storm King Mountain, the warm September sun glinted off the silver tubas of the marching band and lighted the rustling leaves' various shades of flame.
Dozens of uniformed men and women gathered in the crowd: West Point's track team, its gospel choir, former classmates and fellow soldiers. When the hearse pulled up to Perez's grave site -- in Section 36, near those of several other young graduates -- the crowd saluted the flag-draped coffin in near perfect unison.
The family, including parents Vicki and Daniel Perez, sat on 10 folding chairs under a small tent facing the coffin, daubing their eyes.
"Honor guard! Attention!"
The guard assembled around the coffin.
"Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep," Michael Bell read from a poem. "I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glint of snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain."
Then West Point Chaplain Darrell Thomsen addressed Perez.
"In your short time here, you stood the watch with duty, with honor," he said. "Your work on earth is done."
Five guns fired in unison three times. The bugler and the drummer played taps. The bagpiper wailed "Amazing Grace." The marching band finished with the "Alma Mater."
After it was over, Faith Bell reflected on what Perez will be remembered for.
"Her tenacity," Bell said. "Her passion for life. One of the things that was important to Emily was not the fear of death but the fear of not living."