Army Pfc. Wilfredo Perez Jr. of Norwalk was guarding a children's hospital in Baquouba, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, when he and two other members of the 4th Infantry Division were killed in a grenade attack on July 26, 2003. He was 24 years old.
NORWALK -- There was no mistaking Wilfredo Perez Jr. for a star cadet during his time at Norwalk High School.
His attendance was, in the assessment of his former Junior Air Force ROTC instructor, fair. And when Perez did show up, Senior Master Sgt. Douglas Gill had to shake his head on more than one occasion.
``Fredo, put your uniform on,'' Gill recalls telling him. ``How can you come here without your uniform?''
Gill -- who can't help smiling when recounting those days -- says he always believed Perez was driven by the cool factor, that he was letting things slideas an act for his boys. So when Perez paid him a visit last year to share the news that he was headed for Army boot camp, Gill wasn't surprised.
The military was a chance for Perez to be liberated from peer pressure. ``I think one of the reasons he was excited was that it gave him an excuse to do well,'' Gill says. ``He didn't have to worry about what everyone would say.''
Family and friends continue to grapple with the loss of a young man they say never lost his playfulness, even after he matured and found direction in the U.S. Army.
The 24-year-old private first class was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq when he was killed in a grenade attack July 26 along with two other soldiers -- Sgt. Daniel K. Methvin, 22, of Belton, Texas, and Spec. Jonathan P. Barnes, 21, of Anderson, Mo. -- as they guarded a children's hospital in Baquouba, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad.
``He became quite a gentleman once he was in the military,'' saidFred Roos, Perez's step-grandfather. ``He got to be a man in that short time.''
Perez was the first serviceman from Connecticut to die in combat since President Bush declared the end of major fighting on May 1.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Philip A. Jordan, 42, of Enfield, and Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, were both killed March 23 during firefights in southern Iraq.
Perez's body was flown Tuesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and positively identified. Tesia Williams, an Army spokeswoman, said Wednesday afternoon that the Army would be working with the family to make funeral arrangements. For the time being, Perez's parents have been dealing with their grief privately.
Perez was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., before he moved to Connecticut with his father, Wilfredo Perez Sr. He lived in the East Norwalk home of his father and stepmother, Victoria Roos, and attended Norwalk High from March 1995 to September 1998 before dropping out.
He went to work as a contractor with his father, and eventually got his GED. Perez enlisted in the Army in April 2002.
Those who knew him say that if ever there was a family-oriented young man, Perez was it. ``Junior,'' as his family called him, was close with his family in New York and his family in Connecticut.
Last year, before leaving for military training atFort Benning, Ga., Perez stopped by his old high school. Gill said he and Perez chatted, and it was clear that Perez was proud of his accomplishments and looked forward to showing those closest to him what he was capable of.
And in that conversation, Gill said, Perez volunteered to return at some point for a visit to the Connecticut 81st Air Force Junior ROTC cadet group. He wanted to encourage students to make the most of their experience in the ROTC, and offer himself as an example of a life turned around.
``He wanted to come back and talk,'' Gill says. ``He was going to do one of those `don't be like me' [talks].''
Those plans would remain only plans.
Since news of Perez's death emerged, well-wishers have left bouquets and handwritten notes at the family's home. ``Thank you for being so brave,'' says one card in a child's handwriting.
Above it, next to a picture of Perez, a large American flag is draped over the front wooden fence.
Throughout the state, flags remain at half-staff by order of Gov. John Rowland in memory of Perez. Politicians have made their condolences directly to the family and offered their gratitude publicly.
``The Perez family should know with certainty that their precious son died to protect all Americans from the very real threats we face in today's complex world,'' said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, whose 4th District includes Norwalk.
``Wilfredo Perez,'' U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd said, ``gave the ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country, far from his home and far from his family. His valor and patriotism will never be forgotten, and our entire nation owes him and his family a tremendous debt of gratitude.''
At Norwalk High, a flag drapes mournfully at half-staff for one of the school's own. Angela Cimminello, the principal's secretary at the school, came in before 6:30 a.m. the morning after she learned of Perez's death to make sure the flag was properly flown.
It's not something she necessarily knew how to do, but she says she wasn't going to wait. ``You do the best you can,'' she said.
When she saw Perez last year in his neat, militaryuniform, she had to tease him: ``Your pants are pulled up, your shirt's tucked in.''
``He was very excited. He was very proud. He said, `Look at me, Mrs. C.' It gave me goose bumps,'' she says.
Fred Roos, the father of Perez's stepmother, said ``Junior'' never had the chance to meet his half-brother, who was born while Perez was in the service.
That, he said, adds to the sadness of it all.
- ROSELYN TANTRAPHOLCopyright © 2015, CT Now